How to prevent half a million newborn deaths

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Future of Global Health and Healthcare

Half a million babies die each year in their first month of life because of unhygienic conditions, development charity WaterAid said on Tuesday as it launched a child health campaign.

“The links between dirty hands, dirty water and infant mortality have been known about for over 150 years so this is not a situation waiting for an answer, but an injustice waiting for action,” said WaterAid Chief Executive Barbara Frost.

One in five newborns who die in the developing world could have been saved simply by being washed in clean water and cared for in a clean environment by people who had washed their hands, WaterAid said in a report.

The report coincides with new U.N. data showing 38 percent of health facilities in 54 developing countries do not have access to supplies of clean water.

Nearly a fifth lack toilets and more than a third do not have anywhere for staff or patients to wash their hands with soap, according to the World Health Organization.

WaterAid said the figures were all the more shocking because the water supply for facilities defined as having access to water may be up to 500 metres away rather than piped in.

The two reports come as the United Nations decides on new targets to replace the Millennium Development Goals which expire this year.

WaterAid called for a dedicated goal to deliver water and sanitation to everyone, everywhere by 2030.

It added that a baby in sub-Saharan Africa was 30 times more likely to die of an infection within the first month of life than a baby in the developed world.

“A labour ward without water is a danger to the life of newborn children,” Zambian midwife Mary Mwape said in the WaterAid report.

She said a newborn with a freshly cut umbilical cord which was washed using water from shallow wells risked contracting neonatal tetanus or sepsis.

“We know that we are supposed to wash our hands thoroughly before attending to another patient, but what do you do in a situation where there is no running water?” she added.

Globally one in 10 people do not have safe water and 39 percent lack proper sanitation.

WaterAid called on governments to ensure that water, sanitation and hygiene services are embedded in all plans for reducing newborn deaths.

All healthcare facilities should have clean running water, sinks with soap in all birthing rooms and patient toilets, it added.

This article is published in collaboration with Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Emma Batha is a journalist specialising in humanitarian crises and women’s rights. 

Image: A woman holds her newborn baby in a nursery in South Sudan. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu
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