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New hope for Ghana’s newborns

Clinical nurse John Kuunang said that he now knows basic treatments for sick newborns.
© UNICEF Ghana/2012/Logan
Clinical nurse John Kuunang said that he now knows basic treatments for sick newborns.

NYANKPALA, Ghana, December 2012 – Midwife Veronica Akurugu previously had to turn away sick newborns that came to her busy clinic in Nyankpala in Ghana’s Northern Region.
The only treatment she had was an old ambu bag (to support a newborn with difficulty breathing), and a stock of routine vaccines. She and her team of nurses didn’t have the knowledge and skills nor the equipment to treat infections, hypothermia (low body temperature) or sepsis (infections) - common killers in such tiny babies. So they were loaded onto a motorbike or into a taxi and sent to the Tamale Teaching Hospital, another 45 minutes-drive away. 

The sick newborns from Nyankpala were the lucky ones. They are at least close to the city of Tamale, which has the only newborn intensive care ward in the whole of northern Ghana.

If a baby became seriously sick in Paga, close to the Burkina Faso border, their only hope was also the Tamale hospital. Their family faced a four hour journey by road. And when they got there? The Tamale Teaching Hospital newborn intensive care unit is so busy that babies have to share incubators and phototherapy units.

The number of newborns dying during the first month of life has not improved much in the past 10 years in Ghana.

As it stands, Ghana is unlikely to meet the Millennium Development Goal 4 targets on under-five mortality by 2015.

More than half of infant deaths happen within the first month – the newborn period. This needs to be tackled if overall under-five mortality is to be reduced.

UNICEF with financial support from the Government of Japan has initiated a phased scale-up of a package of cost-effective, evidence-based interventions for addressing the high neonatal mortality rates in 11 selected districts of Upper East and Northern regions of Ghana.
Nearly 2,600 health workers (from community health volunteers all the way up to doctors and nurses) were trained in how to care for newborns at home and in clinics and hospitals.

Equipment has been distributed to set up newborn care corners in 190 health centers and hospitals, and newborn intensive care units will be established in six hospitals.

Equipment has also been provided for home-based post-natal care by community health workers who will visit babies twice at home in their first week of life, guided by community volunteers.

Back at Nyankpala, clinical nurse John Kuunang said that he now knows basic treatments for sick newborns. The clinic also has new equipment to treat asphyxia (difficulty in breathing), and John has the knowledge and skills about how to prevent hypothermia (low body temperature), and other common conditions that may cause death of the newborn.

“If a baby comes with an infection, we now start treatment before we refer them to the hospital,” Mr Kuunang said.

Community Health Nurses Regina Sarpong and Fauzia Yakubu also have a bag full of basic equipment that they can use on home visits – scales to identify underweight babies, mucus extractor to clear the respiratory tract, thermometer to check for high or low temperature, ARI timer to check for fast breathing, and clamps for the umbilical cord to control excessive bleeding.

They are to visit a new baby twice at home within its first week of life – in order to identify early signs of problems, and teach mothers how to best care for their new babies.

UNICEF Ghana’s health team expects to see a demonstrable decrease in newborn deaths in the next three to five years, which will contribute to a significant decline in the infant mortality rate that has so far tended to stagnate.



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