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UNICEF and partners battle newborn deaths in India's Rajasthan State

This weekend, health specialists from around the world are in Delhi for a conference to follow up the launch of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health at the UN Millennium Development Goals Summit in September. The meeting – ‘From Pledges to Action’ – is hosted by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, and India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Here is a related story.

By Angela Walker

UDAIPUR, India, 12 November 2010 – Kiran Sharma stands watch over her six-day-old nephew huddled in an incubator under a pink blanket with teddy bears covering his frail body. The baby boy and his twin sister each weighed just over a kilo at birth; their mother was seven and a half months pregnant when they were born.

VIDEO: UNICEF's Poh Si Teng reports on efforts to improve the health of mothers and babies in India.  Watch in RealPlayer


“I was afraid when she was admitted,” Ms. Sharma says, recalling the story of her sister-in-law Priyanka’s delivery. “We worried at the time that the babies would not recover.”

When she heard that her brother Prakash’s children were in serious condition, Ms. Sharma rushed to the hospital – a two-day bus ride from her village in Dhariyawad, 50 km outside Udaipur.

“I take care of these babies as if they are my own children,” says Ms. Sharma, whose smile is still apparent even though she wears a surgical mask to prevent infection. “I have faith that the babies will get better soon. I’m feeling very good now.”

Averting neonatal deaths

The twins are among the lucky ones admitted to a Facility-Based Newborn Care Unit in Udaipur, located in the Indian state of Rajasthan. The first such unit in the state was established with UNICEF support in Tonk district in January 2008. Today, there are 34 in Rajasthan.

© UNICEF India/2010/Crouch
Premature twins sleep at a Facility-Based Newborn Care Unit in Udaipur, located in Rajasthan State, India. The first such unit was established with UNICEF's support in the state in January 2008; there are now 34 in Rajasthan.

Babies who arrive at the care units often suffer low birthweight, prematurity, asphyxia or infections. The doctors and nurses on staff are trained in the latest protocols. They know how to use specialized equipment to treat delicate newborns and increase their chance of survival.

Of the approximately 50,000 infants admitted to the units annually, about 90 per cent will be sent home healthy.

Averting neonatal deaths is pivotal to reducing the infant mortality rate in India, which in 2009 stood at 50 per 1,000 live births. The neonatal period starts from birth and continues through the first 28 days of life. In India, the mortality rate for newborns stands at 39 per 1,000 live births and contributes to about two-thirds of all deaths in the first year of life.

Critical care

Back at the Udaipur care unit, blue light washes over Kiran Sharma’s sister, Mamta Sharma, who is watching as her tiny niece undergoes photo therapy for jaundice. Gauze is taped over the baby’s eyes, and tubes protrude from her nose. Her chest pumps rhythmically, outlining her little ribs visible under her thin flesh.

© UNICEF India/2010/Crouch
UNICEF Representative in India Karin Hulshof pays a visit to a Facility-Based Newborn Care Unit in Udaipur, Rajasthan State.

“I had to come as I was very worried about the babies,” Mamta Sharma says, noting that the family has made a small temple at home to pray for the infants’ survival. “I will thank the gods when we return,” she adds.

A corridor connects the maternal hospital to the newborn care unit just as a mother is connected to her unborn child by the umbilical cord, explains Dr. R.L. Suman, Associate Professor of Paediatrics. “Babies that require critical care and can be transferred immediately,” he says.

‘The right direction’

UNICEF Representative in India Karin Hulshof paid a visit to the care unit in Udaipur recently and was touched by what she saw.

“It’s really wonderful to see the care and attention at this hospital,” she says. “There are doctors. There is a nurse. Sixty deliveries a day – 1,800 deliveries per month. This is really amazing. This is the incredible India that I like. This is India pointing in the right direction.”



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