Unicef sounds the alarm: millions of babies die prematurely

Worldwide, 2.6 million children die each year before they reach their first month of life. The UN Children’s Fund is launching a campaign against this.

Malnourished children in a hospital in Sanaa, Yemen Photo: dpa

Around 2.6 million babies worldwide die in their first month of life every year. One million of them already die on the day of their birth. This is according to a report presented by the United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, on Tuesday morning.

Newborns in Pakistan, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan have the worst chances of survival. Somalia, Lesotho, Guinea-Bissau, South Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali and Chad follow in the other places. According to Unicef estimates, 45.6 children per 1,000 live births died in the first month in Pakistan in 2016, and 35.1 in Chad.

The best chances of survival for newborns are in Japan, Iceland and Singapore. They are followed by Finland, Estonia, Slovenia, Cyprus, Belarus, South Korea, Norway and Luxembourg. Japan has a mortality rate of less than one child per 1,000 live births, and all of the top-ranked countries have fewer than two children (from 1.0 in Iceland to 1.5 in Luxembourg).

"While we have succeeded in halving child mortality over the last quarter century, unfortunately we have not made the same progress in reducing neonatal mortality," said Unicef Executive Director Henrietta Fore. "When you consider that the majority of these cases could be prevented, it’s very clear: The world is failing to protect the poorest babies."

Sub-Saharan Africa particularly affected

The report also shows how dramatic the situation is in Africa in particular. Eight out of ten countries with the highest baby mortality rates are in sub-Saharan Africa. There, pregnant women often receive worse health care than in other countries because of poverty, war and weak institutions. If all countries succeeded in reducing the neonatal mortality rate to the average level of industrialized countries by 2030, 16 million lives could be saved, Unicef calculates.

More than 80 percent of baby deaths (within the first month of life) are a result of premature birth, complications at birth or infections such as pneumonia or sepsis, according to the report. These deaths could be avoided if women were attended at birth by well-trained midwives, if clean water and disinfectants were available, if mothers could breastfeed and if good nutrition was ensured.

Unicef is now launching a campaign under the motto "Every Child Alive" to increase the survival chances of the youngest children. One of the aims is to improve health care and nutrition in the poorest countries. It is also about empowering girls and women to demand and ultimately receive good health care.