Here in Tennessee and elsewhere in the U.S., we expect newborns to live. But in Ethiopia and other developing nations, that is not always the expectation.
I learned about this tragic custom on a recent trip to Ethiopia with Save the Children. Its new report, the 14th annual “State of the World’s Mothers,” found that each year, worldwide, more than 1 million babies die on their first day of life.
Often, these deaths are due to a lack of basic, inexpensive medical equipment and drugs, costing $1 to $6, and shortages of frontline health workers.
As a registered nurse working in Nashville, those depressing statistics represent a senseless loss of human life. I got into nursing, at the urging of my father, because I wanted to make a difference in the world.
I saw that very same passion in Ethiopia’s health care workers, including a nurse who’s dedicated her life to helping mothers safely deliver their babies. Her greatest challenge? Lack of electricity and running water. Often, she delivers babies in total darkness. So she has learned to clench a small flashlight between her teeth, creating the light needed to bring a newborn into the world.
Ethiopia is putting new energy into saving newborns, and there is hope. Countries including Nepal, Bangladesh and Malawi, already have shown that very poor countries can reduce the death rates of newborns. In the past year, led by the U.S., Ethiopia and India, 170 countries have signed “A Promise Renewed,” a global commitment to end child mortality within a generation, in part by putting increased attention to the risky newborn period.
In spite of the poverty, health care providers in these nations refuse to become frustrated or discouraged. Instead, they creatively improvise and take pride in the advancements they have achieved.
During my December trip, I visited health care workers and families working together to improve conditions in communities. Progress in Ethiopia is being made, community by community, baby by baby. Its healthcare infrastructure now reaches remote areas. And, thanks to additional training, more health workers have been recruited and educated. Importantly, the nation now allows community-based health extension workers to treat sepsis, a blood infection causing 19 percent of newborn deaths and 15,500 baby deaths each year in Ethiopia.
Sepsis is cured with low-cost, injectable antibiotics. Costing $2 and often much less, these drugs — together with chlorhexidine for clean umbilical cord care — could save 509,000 needy newborns each year worldwide from infection.
Here in Tennessee such basic supplies are never out of a nurse’s reach. And although our state’s newborn mortality rate doesn’t compare to Ethiopia’s, it is still above the national average. So there is more we can and must do right here at home. But that doesn’t mean we can’t act to help some of the world’s poorest mothers save their babies at the same time.
As a nurse, my visit to Ethiopia was a life-transforming experience. I urge you to join me in raising awareness to support global maternal, newborn and child programs funded by the U.S. government, like the ones I saw in Ethiopia. The United States must continue to be a leader in this work, which is making a difference.
A little money goes a long way toward saving newborn lives. With our efforts, maybe soon, more babies will be given names on the day they are born.