October 28, 2014 | The Editors

Advocating better health for Zambia’s newborns

Health advocates are making newborn health a political priority in Zambia in hopes of ending one of the highest infant death rates in the world.
A mother and her child.Health advocates and government groups have made a pact to improve newborn and child health care in Zambia. Photo: PATH/
Health advocates and government groups have made a pact to improve newborn and child health care in Zambia. Photo: PATH.

Today, newborns in Zambia have a better chance for survival and a healthier future thanks, in part, to recent health policy actions that are actively supported by PATH and local health partners.

For nearly 20 years, Zambia has had one of the highest infant death rates in the world. While the country is on track to reduce deaths of children under the age of five (read more about the Millennium Development Goals), it has failed to make similar progress in reducing newborn deaths.

Government policies have been silent on newborn health, and government decision makers have rarely addressed the issue.

Three women holding babies on their laps.
Mothers and their children at a health clinic. Photo: PATH/Wendy Stone.

The lack of policies has “had a very negative bearing on getting resources allocated to newborn health activities,” says Vichael Silavwe, Zambia’s chief integrated management of childhood illnesses officer in the Ministry of Community Development, Mother and Child Health. He adds that without policies, government officials and health workers have not had the necessary support to improve infant health.

A new beginning for Zambia’s children

But the launch earlier this month of two new government health policies signals a major shift in the country’s priority of newborn health. On October 14, 2014, the Honorable Emerine Kabanshi, Minister of Community Development, Mother and Child Health, unveiled two national child health policies: a set of Essential Newborn Care guidelines and the National Integrated Management of Child Illness strategic plan.

Together, these policies provide gold standard guidance for health workers who care for newborns, and they create a foundation for key decision-makers to allocate additional staff and budgets to newborn health services.

Silavwe says the policies are significant because they promise to improve stakeholder coordination for health programs at both the community and national levels.

“This is a great opportunity,” he adds, “to bridge the gap between national policy and local district action to raise coverage of essential interventions, mobilize resources, and measure progress towards reducing infant and newborn deaths.”

Celebrating years of work

This is the successful culmination of years of behind-the-scenes work by newborn health advocates dedicated to making newborn health a political priority.

Three years ago, newborn health advocates in Zambia—including PATH, Save the Children, the Ministry of Health, Zambia Pediatrics Association, the World Health Organization, and UNICEF—created a coalition to secure a newborn health policy framework to increase funding for newborn health, improve health worker training, integrate newborn care with other child health services, and raise political visibility. With these mandates in place, they believed doors would open for new treatments, technologies, and better newborn care by doctors and nurses.

Dr. Nanthalile Mugala, PATH’s country manager for Zambia, says, “This process demonstrates the power of policy advocacy. Through partnerships and close coordination, we support the Zambian government in developing policies that provide for the rapid scale-up of newborn health care in the country.”

Moving forward to save newborn lives

Now that newborn health policies have been created and launched in Zambia, what comes next?

Advocates will continue working with government partners to ensure these policies are implemented in communities.

Government officials must ensure political will remains high and budgets are allocated towards lifesaving interventions and programming.

Health workers and medical professionals will have opportunities for better training in new practices.

Most importantly, babies in Zambia will have the chance for a brighter future.

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