Melinda Gates to WHA: We need your support on newborn health

Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, addressed the World Health Assembly in Geneva, where she stressed the need to elevate improving newborn health within the broader context of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health. Photo by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Global progress on child and maternal health has been substantial over the past two decades, and the rate of women surviving pregnancy and childbirth and children living beyond the age of 5 has been slashed by almost half.

However, the same cannot be said of newborn health.

“The world is saving newborns at a much slower rate than older children,” Melinda Gates, co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said on Tuesday at the World Health Assembly in Geneva. Each year, she noted, 2.9 million children around the world die within their first month of life. One million of those newborns die on their first day, and the vast majority of newborn deaths are preventable.

So what can we do to address this problem and make progress in the face of the post-2015 development agenda?

In her speech, Melinda Gates stressed the need to elevate improving newborn health within the broader context of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health — known as RMNCH — and gave five examples of simple, inexpensive interventions that are already available and cited in a recent study by The Lancet that would save hundreds of thousands of newborns each year:

    • Resuscitation.

    • Drying the baby.

    • Chlorhexidine cord care.

    • Immediate breastfeeding.

    • Skin-to-skin contact.

Also published on Tuesday, The Lancet’s “Every Newborn Series” has been hailed as the most in-depth analysis conducted so far on the ongoing slow progress in newborn survival, and advocates for facility-based care around the time of birth, which is precisely when most deaths occur, most lives can be saved and long-term disabilities averted through the above interventions. To meet this goal, the report calls not for cutting-edge technology but for sound investment in responsive health systems equipped with lifesaving commodities and staffed with health workers who can deliver high-quality and timely skilled care, including emergency obstetric care and interventions for small and ill newborn babies.

Melinda Gates argued this evidence to compel the WHA to endorse the the Every Newborn Action Plan, the first global initiative to specifically address this issue.

The ENAP, considered by many to the be the next major breakthrough in global health efforts, aims to reduce newborn deaths by two-thirds over the next 20 years through a roadmap to tackle preventable newborn mortality and a joint action plan with country-specific targets involving all stakeholders and supported by the Gates Foundation, NGOs such as Save the Children and U.N. agencies like WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA, among other groups.

“People still say that caring for women and children is too big an investment for too uncertain a return. You and I get to be the ones who present powerful evidence to the contrary,” Melinda Gates told WHA delegates in Geneva. “And we can use that evidence to insist to the world that — from this day forward — every baby born will be a promise kept.”

Devex is in Geneva to cover the 67th World Health Assembly. Check back in the next few days to see video interviews and more of our coverage from Switzerland. Join the Devex community and gain access to more in-depth analysis, breaking news and business advice — and a host of other services — on international development, humanitarian aid and global health.

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