|© UNICEF Ghana/2011/Nyani Quarmyne|
|A mother holds her healthy baby, who was treated by a Kangaroo Mother Care programme in central Ghana.|
By Madeleine Logan
In Ghana, 13 per cent of children are born with low birthweight, a result of premature birth or poor development during pregnancy. Infants with low birthweight face a variety of health complications and greatly increased risk of dying. Here, UNICEF Australian Youth Ambassador for Development and UNICEF volunteer Madeleine Logan reports on an innovative programme that is helping these infants survive and thrive.
TAMALE, Ghana, 7 December 2011 – Kangaroos were the last thing I expected to be discussing with my new colleagues when I arrived in West Africa last month. When I moved from Australia to Tamale to write about UNICEF’s work there, I had braced myself for the unfamiliar – villages of squat mud huts, gritty harmattan winds and the crackled sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer.
But here I was, far from home, talking about kangaroos.
It turns out that my country’s iconic marsupials have become model mums here in Ghana: In the town of Bolgatanga, the UNICEF-supported Kangaroo Mother Care project is helping new mums nurture premature and underweight babies at home with the use of a cloth ‘pouch’.
The weak newborns are wrapped to their mother’s chests, where they nestle both day and night. Snuggled against their mother’s skin, the baby’s body temperature stabilizes, their heart rate steadies and they begin to breathe more easily.
Midwife Jemila Mohammed says the skin-to-skin contact saves the lives of fragile babies in a region where hospital incubators are scarce and unreliable.
“It’s wonderful to see,” she said.
Learning the ‘kangaroo method’
The kangaroo method was introduced in Colombia in 1979 to treat underweight and premature babies at home, rather than in hospital incubators, which were inadequate and expensive. As soon as newborns were stable and gaining weight, and as soon as mums could confidently tie their cloth pouch and breastfeed, they were able to go home. This approach decreased the risks of hospital-acquired infection, severe illness and respiratory tract disease.
Exclusive breast feeding is another key aspect of to the program. This means babies are fed nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life, avoiding illnesses from contaminated water or breast milk substitutes.
In Bolgatanga, mums and babies return to the hospital for weigh-ins. “When the babies are found to have put on weight, all the nurses shout and make noises in celebration,” Ms. Mohammed said.
There has been plenty of celebrating lately. In the first six months of 2011, 99 underweight babies were born in the Bolgatanga Municipal area. All were introduced to the Kangaroo Mother Care program – and all survived. Director of health Joyce Bagina told me about one child born at Zuarungu Health Centre, who weighed 1.6 kg at birth and tipped the scales at 3.5 kg after two months of kangaroo care.
Margaret Kugre, a nurse at the Upper East Regional Hospital, told me that before the kangaroo programme was introduced in 2008, up to four tiny babies would have to share the maternity ward’s only incubator, which was often broken down for months at a time. Now, the hospital has three incubators, and they are rarely used.
‘The women are happy’
I asked Ms. Kugre how women responded to the idea of carrying their newborns on their chests in a country where babies are always tied to a mother’s back. She said that mums would do anything to help their fragile babies, but that it was important for nurses to also involve a woman’s husband and mother-in-law.
“Carrying the baby on the back is preferred in Africa,” she said. “But we work with the whole family so it is not so strange to them. In the ward, we wrap the babies onto the mother-in-law so she can feel what it’s like. The women are happy.”
And the babies are thriving – all thanks to the kangaroo and a team of dedicated midwives.