In the late 1970s, when Wolfgang Munar, senior program officer for Family Health here at the foundation was a medical student in his native Colombia in the late 70s, he learned of a very simple method to save premature newborns. The method had been developed by two Colombian pediatricians, Edgar Rey and Hector Martinez, and was simply called Kangaroo Mother Care. Now, more than 30 years later, Wolfgang is helping to spread the word about how important kangaroo care is in helping to save the lives of newborns – especially in the poorest countries in the world.
Deceptively simple, Rey and Martinez described their approach as based on some of the oldest known human practices and behaviors: the provision of maternal warmth, love, and breast milk. Years later, study after study has demonstrated that this approach is effective in promoting breastfeeding, reducing neonatal infection, and significantly improving the odds of survival.
A recent review reported that kangaroo care cuts the risk of mortality of preterm infants in developing countries in half. The caveat in the original approach –and a feature that remains unchanged in Colombia to this day- was that kangaroo care was to be provided under medical supervision and within specialized hospital settings.
More than 30 years later, however, this highly effective, live-saving practice is practiced in many parts of the world and has been adapted to non-institutional settings where resources are scarce.
This year the Carlos Slim Health Institute, in Mexico, has chosen Colombia’s Kangaroo Foundation to be the recipient of the 2012 Carlos Slim Award as Exceptional Health Institution. The Jury, of which Wolfgang is a member, recognized the innovative and easily replicable nature of the Kangaroo Mother Care and its potential for saving the lives of millions of newborns around the world.
Coverage of this highly cost effective intervention remains unacceptably low, however, in light of the tremendous potential for impact if it were widely adopted. It is our hope that this award will stimulate policy makers and health care professionals around the world to champion its adoption in health care facilities.
Moreover, Gary Darmstadt, director of Family Health here at the foundation, has witnessed mothers providing this care to their newborns, and has seen the tremendous benefits it provides to newborns and their mothers in community settings. Its safety, simplicity and effectiveness suggest that this intervention ought to be extended to all infants – preterm and term - regardless of place of birth, the world over.
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