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African countries partner with Indian scientist to reduce newborn infant deaths

Initiative could be key to saving one million African babies who die every year within the first month of birth

NAIROBI, 21 August 2006 -  In an initiative that could herald a reversal in the disproportionately high number of new born babies dying within the first month of birth, seven African countries have partnered with Indian scientist Dr. Abhay Bang to learn about and adopt his home-based approach to caring and treating newborn babies.

Facilitated by UNICEF, decision-makers from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar will this month travel to Gadchiroli district in Maharastra State, western India to study Dr. Bang’s pioneering work, which has been able to reduce by two-thirds the number of newborn babies dying within a month after birth.  At a cost of $150 per child, Dr. Bang’s model is hailed as a feasible and cost-effective strategy for poor communities in Africa.

Through the NGO he founded, the Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH), Dr. Bang’s programme provides basic health care to babies who are delivered at home. Forty village health workers have been trained to provide essential newborn care, and diagnose newborn complications such as pneumonia, preterm and birth asphyxia. They are equipped with a basic $60 medical kit consisting of a baby sleeping sack, a bag and mask for resuscitation, and antibiotics. 

“Although it is ideal that every mother should be attended to by skilled medical personnel in health facilities, the reality is that the majority of mothers in Africa, especially in rural areas, give birth at home,” says Luwei Pearson, UNICEF’s Coordinator on Maternal and Neonatal Health for Eastern and Southern Africa. “In that environment, without any care and support, the newborns are at risk of dying from pneumonia, asphyxia, hypothermia and complications arising from pre-maturity. The mothers have to be taught how to better look after their babies and be backed by prompt assistance that is accessible and affordable.”

Every year, one million babies in sub-Saharan Africa die within the first month of birth, accounting for nearly 60 per cent of all deaths among under-five children. These deaths occur in health facilities, but many babies also die in remote areas where access to health care is poor. In the Horn of Africa, for example, years of marginalization and under-development have left large areas of pastoralist communities un-serviced by basic social services, including health care.   

The general view is that newborn deaths cannot be reduced without large-scale investments in technology and hospitals. Important as these are, Dr. Bang’s model has demonstrated the value of simple, low-cost, high impact interventions. Without funds for expensive neo-natal care, African health leaders are seeing great potential in replicating the model within their own countries.  

For 60 years UNICEF has been the world’s leader for children, working on the ground in 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence.  The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

About Dr. Abhay Bang and the SEARCH Programme
Dr. Abhay Bang grew up in a Gandhi ashram in India. He holds a Masters in Public Health from John Hopkins University and is the Founder and Director of the grassroots organization Society for Education, Action and Research in Community Health (SEARCH). His work in reducing newborn deaths has been published in The Lancet and the Journal of Perinatology and was included in Time Magazine’s ‘Heroes of Health’ list for 2005. He follows Gandhian principles of working with the poor. Set up in 1986, SEARCH operates in 42 villages.

For more information, please contact:

Patricia Lone, UNICEF ESARO, Nairobi. Tel: +254 722 520 595; plone@unicef.org

Victor Chinyama, UNICEF ESARO, Nairobi. Tel: +254 722 701 505; vchinyama@unicef.org




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