The following post was written by Joy Lawn and Mary Kinney
Regina Obeng (left) and Rekha Samant (right), Award winners. Photos by Jane Hahn and Ritam Banerjee/Getty Images for Save the Children
"Neonatal nursing is a high priority profession, which has received low priority”, said Dr Abhay Bang, a global advocate for newborn health. Watch Dr. Bang’s congratulatory address.
Saving newborns against the odds is the mission of neonatal nurses. Every day they fight to reduce the 3.6 million newborn deaths each year – working quietly often in challenging settings, providing kangaroo mother care, giving injection antibiotics, resuscitating babies and supporting mothers at a very stressful time. Over three-quarters of these deaths occur in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a critical shortage of medical care, midwives and nurses.
Most countries have plans to train doctors and midwives and community health workers – yet few low-income countries include neonatal nurses in their health system human resource planning. In the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, despite having the world’s highest risk of neonatal deaths there are only a handful of accredited neonatal nurse courses. India, with over 1 million neonatal deaths each year, does not have a systematic neonatal nurse training scheme.
From October 24-27 in Durban, South Africa, neonatal nurses from around the globe joined together for the 7th International Conference of the Neonatal Nurses, the first ever held in Africa, to raise a united voice for newborn babies who are the most vulnerable citizens of our nations. The conference theme “Excellence against all odds – Researching solutions for global challenges” brought together neonatal nurses working in high and low-income countries, raising awareness of the common challenges faced in both settings and partnering to improve care.
Over 500 nurses who care for newborns and other delegates attended the conference to learn about new advances for neonatal care, and explore ways to establish national neonatal nursing associations and improve training. The conference was co-sponsored by The Neonatal Association of Southern Africa, The Council of International Neonatal Nurses, and Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children. Delegates also had the opportunity to see neonatal care in South Africa through local hospital visits, to gain practical skills for example learning about the innovative “Helping Babies Breathe”, a program and equipment for basic neonatal resuscitation.
Rekha Samant, Joy Lawn, Regina Obeng, Christine Otai, Lolly Mashao
Photo by ICNN, used with permission from Exhibition Photo’s
Two neonatal nurses, Regina Obeng from Ghana and Rekha Samant from India were awarded the first ever International Neonatal Nursing awards. Dr Abhay Bang congratulated them saying “the world has gained two new idols”. These two women, and many other unnamed nurses, are at the forefront of caring for newborns, striving for excellence to save lives against all odds. Christine Otai, the runner up from rural Uganda saved the life of a baby whose mother died and who was then abandoned – 19 years later she is still looking after him.
Regina landed back in Ghana and met her Minister of Health, and was featured on TV, appealing for more neonatal nurses especially for rural areas. Rekha also has used multiple newspaper articles to ask for more support for neonatal nurses in India.
A video message from Kevin McKidd, actor from Grey’s Anatomy acknowledged the unseen role of neonatal nurses:
“Many times, you are fighting against the odds. You play the leading role in the effort to save newborn lives. Though your story may not be broadcast to millions across the world, it is still being told. It is told through the smile of a mother you’ve just comforted or the warmth of a baby you’ve nursed back to health. We hear your story, and we hope many others will hear your story too. Thank you for all the work you do for newborn babies every day.”
At the close of this conference the conveners called for a new recognition of the urgency of reducing newborn deaths and the linked urgency of systematically increasing the numbers of neonatal nurses and other frontline workers. Abhay Bang closed his message with the following wish “May your tribe grow”.
The challenge to us is clear. Nurses like Regina and Rekha and many like them illustrate that it is possible to totally rewrite the statistics on newborn deaths with greater investments in the right people, in training and basic equipment. What are we doing to increase and to recognize neonatal nurses everywhere? Society recognizes and pays people who are good at kicking footballs, or at acting, but do we reward the workers who save newborn lives? Do our governments have systematic plans to increase the numbers of these desperately needed frontline workers?