Newborn health features strongly at the World Health Assembly

It is not every day that Ministers of Health and other global health leaders from around the world gather in one place. This is the case in Geneva, once-a-year in May, during the World Health Assembly (WHA). High level officials are present to actively contribute, influence and help shape major international health policies and frameworks.

Reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH) featured strongly in all of the discussions at this year’s WHA – including through formal agenda items on the MDGs, life-saving commodities and universal health coverage, as well as several side-events. It was stated numerous times that while some countries are on track to meet MDGs 4 & 5 and child mortality has gone down globally, there has been a much slower decline in neonatal mortality – in some countries even an increase.

Globally, newborn deaths now account for 43 percent of all deaths of children under 5-years old — up from 36 percent in 1990.

The Minister of Health of Bangladesh Dr. Haque was just one of many delegates addressing the issue at this year’s WHA. Minister Haque noted that in Bangladesh, neonatal deaths account for 60% of all under-five deaths. While under-five mortality decreased by 60% over the past decade, neonatal mortality only declined by 38%. He said that his country was investing more to address this, including through tackling infections, birth asphyxia, prematurity and low birth weight.

Advocating for global action on newborns

At Save the Children we focused much of our work during the WHA meetings around newborn health and the findings in the most recent State of the World’s Mothers Report. The Ministers of Health of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, among other key delegates, received copies of the report, which calls attention to the fact that more than a third of all newborn deaths take place on the day a child is born.

While an estimated 98 percent of all newborn deaths take place in low-income countries, the report also singled out the United States for its high rate of first-day deaths among industrialized countries. “The US has the highest rate of newborn mortality amongst industrialized countries. We are ashamed and aim to change it”, said Nils Daulaire, Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs, US Department of Health and Human Services.

The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH), the World Health Organization (WHO), Save the Children and others also expressed strong support for a Global Newborn Action Plan, which is currently being developed and is expected to be launched at the World Health Assembly in May 2014.

The Global Newborn Action Plan is a roadmap for change to reduce preventable newborn mortality. It takes forward the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health by focusing specific attention on newborn health and identifies actions for improving their survival, health and development. The Global Newborn Action Plan brings together the latest available evidence on effective interventions and delivery mechanisms. Foremost, it aims to support government leadership and the actions of policy makers and program managers. The goal is not for countries to develop new plans but to sharpen existing national health sector plans.

The content will be developed in the coming months through an extensive consultation process. A consultation was already held during the Global Newborn Health Conference, the first-ever international summit on newborn health, in Johannesburg, South Africa in April 2013, just weeks before the start of the World Health Assembly. All the activities in support of newborn health at the WHA followed the successful conference in Johannesburg.

Commitments on life-saving commodities for newborns

Delegates attending this year’s WHA also passed a resolution to implement the recommendations of the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. They committed to improve the quality, supply and delivery of – and to facilitate universal access for all members of society to – 13 underused life-saving commodities, including four targeted at newborn health:

  1. injectable antibiotics – newborn sepsis
  2. antenatal corticosteroids (ANCs) – preterm respiratory distress syndrome
  3. chlorhexidine – newborn cord care
  4. resuscitation devices – newborn asphyxia

Need for continued commitment and action

These discussions took place within a wider framework of overwhelming consensus on the centrality of universal health coverage in improving RMNCH. Furthermore, a resolution was approved to sustain and accelerate efforts towards the achievement of the health-related MDGs and to ensure that health is central to the post-2015 UN development agenda.

The momentum is clearly there and the key now is to ensure that newborn health continues to remain central to the wider discussions around the MDGs and that global leaders take the action needed to put an end to preventable newborn mortality. The World Health Assembly was a significant step towards further commitments and action on newborns.

See the official summary of outputs of this year’s World Health Assembly

Please stay tuned: upcoming topics page on HNN for Life Saving Commodities


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