Inspiring Ideas on Improving Newborn Health in Poor Countries

Photo: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This blog was originally published in Impatient Optimists. Written by Gary Garmstadt, Amie Newman, Wendy Prosser.

I am optimistic about the possibilities within reach for newborn health and I hope you are too. Here’s why. The first-ever Global Newborn Health Conference occurred last week. It was a powerful experience to be surrounded by policy makers, program managers, researchers, practitioners, and champions for newborn health from around the world. We have better data and better information on causes of death, simple, cost-effective solutions and delivery strategies to save newborn lives. But that’s not the only reason I’m optimistic.

It was particularly inspiring to see moms join the effort from around the world, in the room, with newborn infants in their arms and laps. Many more mothers joined in by watching the web-stream and taking to social media: blogs, Tumblrs, and Twitter using #newborn2013 and #NewbornActionPlan to share their own experiences, spread awareness of the issues in global newborn health, and offer solutions. It’s a perfect example of the impetus in action for expanding the traditional group of newborn health champions, using creativity, and engaging a strong array of partners beyond our immediate sphere of influence that will help us, ultimately, save newborn lives. 

Why is this important? Because if we are to make true progress when it comes to newborn health and lives, we must be innovative and recognize the ways in which newborn health is embedded within a broad, complex system with many influential leverage points and influential people along the way.

A story from Honduras captures this idea.
A community in the southern part of the country introduced a new health strategy aimed to advance newborn health but, interestingly, utilized a leverage point that didn’t directly involve newborns. The plan urged pregnant women to develop birth preparedness plans, and included improvements in the quality of care at the facility level.

To ensure that women would get prenatal care, this town made it a law that husbands are required to take their wives to the clinic for prenatal care. If a husband didn’t comply, he found himself sweeping the streets. The town is using social stigma to encourage positive behavior change.

It’s rather unorthodox, but this change received buy-in from community leaders, lawmakers, law enforcement, health personnel, and, most importantly, the wives. It changed the way community members looked at prenatal care: it’s now a family responsibility with transparent oversight by the community.

So, not only did this leverage point exist outside the health system, it’s an example of the kind of lever that exists, within this complex system of newborn health, which is not directly linked to a newborn baby’s health.

We know of the influence a mother’s health and care has on a newborn, as well as of cultural norms, policies related to education–especially for girls, and even the nutritional status of young women before they become pregnant. A healthy newborn now has more opportunities to grow into a healthy child with more chances to become a healthy, productive adult, to start the cycle again and to contribute to long-term economic prospects of poor countries.

We know that the newborn is the nexus to improving everything else along the lifecycle. And this is the challenge facing the newborn community now—we can’t look only at the 28 days after birth; we must look at the entire system. We can’t go it alone as a newborn health community.

With the energy created by this conference, we have the opportunity to build on the extraordinary advances made in maternal and child health, and more recently in newborn health. Just as in child health, so much can be done that is simple. But we have to think outside the box, beyond the usual domain of maternal, newborn and child health.

My hope is that the energy generated at the Global Newborn Health Conference will continue and expand into the broader context, leading to new partnerships and use of a wider array of and more innovative levers like the ones I’ve discussed in this post, for impact on newborn health.

The conversation and hard work continues. We will bring this creativity and inspiration, along with the evidence and knowledge we currently have about what works to improve newborn health, to our broader work on investing in women and girls. Catapult is an example of a new mechanism for taking action to empower and improve the lives of women and girls; there you will find number of project through which you can make a difference.

As we now prepare for the Women Deliver conference, an opportunity to highlight the critical importance of investing in the health and well-being of girls and women, in May in Kuala Lumpur, we recognize that this extremely valuable investment in girls and women must start with a healthy newborn.

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