Maternal and Child Health in Africa.

Why Mothers and Women Must Speak Up on Behalf of Newborns

Photo: MamaYe!

This blog was originally published by CARMMA 

Let’s take this on the chin: We all were infants once – eating what shouldn’t be eaten, soiling bed sheets, running around naked, and disturbing our mothers’ sleep! They taught us how to eat, to take our first steps, and bathed us even after the first 28 days of our time here! (I am always annoyed to know about this). For those who have mixed backgrounds, we learned to speak our first words from them. Maternal and Child health couldn’t get any more relevant!

It has been estimated that every minute, eight African children under five die in countries outside of North Africa. Of the 54 countries on the continent, 36 have under-five mortality rates (U5MRs) of above 100 per 1000 live births; 8 have U5MRs of at least 200 per 1000 live births; 5 countries have had static U5MRs in the past fifteen years while in 9 countries the U5MRs have reversed.
Two thirds of the under-five deaths in the African region are due to preventable causes. The chief causes of death are neonatal conditions and acute respiratory infections mainly pneumonia, malaria, diarrhoeal diseases, measles and HIV/AIDS with malnutrition being a confounding factor that accounts for one third of all deaths in children under five years. According to WHO, of an estimated 10.6 million children under five who die each year, 4.6 million are in Africa. Approximately 3 million newborns die every year – that is the equivalent of a large commercial plane full of passengers crashing every hour!!

Surely, all these infants have mothers, right? And that’s why mothers should be given more resources to make their voices heard, starting from their own homes, local communities, district, national and international platforms. Alongside this, I can’t forget the role of men…real men.

I remember getting glued to my Google+ live stream of the first ever Global Newborn Health Conference, which took place last week. It was amazing, and I was really touched to see mothers joining the effort from around the world, sitting in the room with newborn infants in their laps. Many more mothers joined in via webstream and 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. To me, that marked yet another clear reason 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.

So, what really is holding neonatal health back? Many horizontal, vertical and crisscrossing factors. Mothers must keep speaking out – on the influence a mother’s health and care has on a newborn, cultural norms, educational policies 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 and become a healthy, productive adult; repeating this cycle will contribute to long-term economic prospects of Africa.

There are quite a number of fallacies circulating the African continent about spirits being responsible for the deaths of infants. Truth is, females who believe this have lower literacy levels compared to their male counterparts. The higher the level of education of a mother, the higher the chances that this mother will have healthy children. For example, did you know that in many traditional cultures, newborns are not allowed outdoors or around outsiders for weeks for fear of “evil spirits” and “evil-filled people” doing them harm simply by looking at them, swearing at them, refusing to greeting them or cursing them? Because so many infants die, such communities tend to explain their losses by blaming ‘Satan’ and ‘Evil’. For example, some communities fear the “evil eye” at birth, thus making it difficult for women to have a skilled attendant during delivery or to get early postnatal care, both of which can improve the health of mom and baby.

Mothers in Africa face a gauntlet of obstacles: Food insecurity in Africa threatens the lives of millions of vulnerable people, especially displaced persons and people with HIV/AIDS. Undernutrition is directly or indirectly responsible for 3.5 million child death every year, and accounts for at least 35% of the disease burden in children under five. It also increases the risk of death of the mother at birth and may be associated with about 20% of maternal deaths. Africa outside North Africa has one of the highest prevalence of low birth weight ranging from 7-42%. The breastfeeding rate is low and complementary foods are inadequate and inappropriate in the region. Annually, almost one million children die from pneumonia, 769 000 from diarrhoea and a further 810 000 from malaria; 600 000 children under five years are infected with HIV each year, mainly through mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and 315 000 die from AIDS.

Mothers cannot solve these problems on their own. We (fathers, future fathers, public and private partners) need to be committed and give the highest level of support to mothers and babies. I hope that the Global Neonatal Action Plan (set to be released later this year) will be more action-oriented. I also hope that the Women Deliver conference in Kuala Lumpur, helps highlight the critical importance of investing in the health and well-being of girls and women.

Brian Kanaahe Mwebaze Bilal is a Public Health Programmes Manager for the Uganda Red Cross Society. He Tweets from @BrianBilalK1 and is also on Facebook Brian Kanaahe M.Bilal. All views expressed herein are his and do not reflect those of his employer.

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