Saving new-born lives in Armenia

Equipping health workers with the knowledge and skills to save new-born lives

by Zhanna Ulikhanyan
Newly born baby in a clinic in Stepanevan Armenia in 2018.
08 November 2018

Shushanik was born this past August in Armenia’s northern Lori province in the town of Stepanavan. The odds were already stacked against Shushanik even before she came to this world.  Born last August in Stepanavan, in Armenia’s northern Lori province, the baby girl faced a high risk of not making it to her first birthday.  Newly born infants in the country’s rural regions are that much more at a disadvantage than new-borns in the big cities.

New-born deaths still account for a staggering majority of child deaths in Armenia

While the 20 years before Shushanik’s birth saw Armenia halving its child mortality rate, the latest data shows that 70 percent of Armenia’s child mortality cases occur within the first month of a child’s life.  Premature delivery, congenital disease, pneumonia, and asphyxia are among the main causes.  Many are preventable with access to basic health care.

In 2017, UNICEF partnered with the Ministry of Health, and the American University of Armenia’s Center for Health Services Research and Development to assess maternal and new-born health care in maternity hospitals, children’s hospitals and clinics across the country.

This research confirmed that high-quality neonatal and infant health care services are limited. Specifically, there is a lack of professionally trained health workers, limited intensive care services for newborns, and inadequate referral systems, particularly in the rural regions.

The “Every Single Newborn Action Plan”

Based on these findings, UNICEF and the Ministry of Health have developed an Action Plan to reduce new-born mortality in Armenia.

The Action Plan includes developing clinical manuals and guidelines on monitoring neonatal illnesses in communities, strengthening the national home visiting program, and improving the skills of local health workers.

Armine Sakanyan is a paediatrician who participated in a UNICEF-supported training, as part of the Action Plan implementation, in Vanadzor which is also in Lori province. “I do not even remember when I last participated in a training focusing on the needs of new-borns between zero and two-month-olds,” says Dr. Sakanya.

Dr. Sakanyan, a pediatrician, holding a new-born in a clinic in Lori Region, Armenia.
Dr. Sakanyan, a pediatrician, holding a new-born in a clinic in Lori Region, Armenia.

In total, more than 650 paediatricians, family doctors and nurses from across Armenia have participated in the training module for strengthening their knowledge and skills in on-site treatment of neonatal diseases, the basic principles of timely hospitalization, and the correct evaluation of an infant’s health status and development after the baby leaves the hospital. The training, which is also a part of the licensing requirements for medical staff is also a part, will soon be incorporated into the National Health Institute curriculum.

Even with her 36 years of experience, Dr. Sakanyan says the training is essential.

“A local family that I know brought in their six-week-old infant last month for an examination.  The boy had already been prescribed long-term hospital treatment, and the family wanted a second opinion. I instantly recalled from the training to take account of the full picture, instead of concentrating on just one symptom, and the whole picture was totally different.  I prescribed treatment that helped the child recover without being hospitalized.”

“This is how important good trainings are.  Not only do they provide you with knowledge, but also with the confidence to make decisions in your work,” she adds.

The Action Plan also recognizes the vital role of parents, as seen in prominence on educating caregivers.  So far, around 10,000 pregnant women, parents and caretakers from Armenia’s different provinces have learned about basic neonatal care, the signs to look out for during the first weeks of the baby’s life, and when to seek specialist care and advice.

Among those participating in the caregiver trainings was Shushanik’s mother.

With well-trained health workers and educated parents, the little girl has now a better chance to beat those odds, and celebrate their first birthday and many more.