By Debbie Lester, Clinical Programmes and US Country Director
Complications from pre-term birth is the number one killer of young children. According to UNICEF, in 2013 complications from preterm birth accounted for 1.1million deaths and more than 9 in 10 babies born extremely premature in low income countries die within the first few days of life.
I have been passionately involved in the treatment, care and advocacy of pre-term infants for well over two decades. Early in my career, I knew without a shadow of a doubt that I had found my calling when I began to care for these tiny and fragile new lives. Whether it’s the tiny hand wrapped around your finger or 500gms of personality nestled in a warm incubator, in an instant these little people will grab your heart.
I learned as a young clinician that part of my role when caring for these tiny babies is that it’s my responsibility to communicate on their behalf. Staff who care for premature infants are highly specialized to detect nonverbal cues and disseminate to the medical team. They rely on us to do our job and to do it well.
It’s been an amazing journey to watch the advances in care of the preterm infant and to look back on weights and ages that we once called ‘non-viable’ to present day where survival rates are quite favorable….that is if you are born in a high income country. In developed countries the mortality rates are now 10% while in low income countries it is a devastating 90%.
When I first started working in resource limited health care settings I was stunned and devastated (still am) at the inequity. How could it be that care is so advanced in one part of the world and yet in another something as natural as childbirth will take your life? Premature infants left to die due lack of basic supplies and training, while in high income countries all of the training and tools are at hand.
Back in 2000, when we decided to build a neonatal intensive care program in central Uganda many said it can’t be done and it would be difficult if not impossible to deliver high technical care to newborns in a low income country. We believed in access of care for all, and that with critical pediatric supplies and training many newborn lives could be saved. And so we began. As the years went on and the word was out many mothers came to Kiwoko Hospital in central Uganda because they knew there was a unit that could provide expert care to their infant. And 14 years later we have statistics to knock down the myths and prove that high level infant care can be provided in in low income countries. Today, we are seeing 98% survival in infant weighing 1.5-2.4kgs.
In the post MDG era and working with the Every Newborn Action Plan we will continue to communicate on behalf of premature infants and their families worldwide. We will utilize a Knowledge Sharing platform to help others in low income countries in the prevention of preterm birth and establish newborn care programs and work towards access of care for all children…..a basic human right.