More than a million babies die on the same day they are born each year. Three million die within their first month of life. Almost all of those deaths are preventable.
Those are some of the statistics outlined in Save the Children's 14th annual State of the World's Mothers report released this week.
"The birth of a child should be a time of wonder and celebration," reads the introduction. "But for millions of mothers and babies in developing countries, it is a dance with death."
There is, however, a glimmer of hope. The number of children dying has declined by more than half since 1970. Latin American countries, especially, have seen declining newborn and maternal death rates. And that's not some miracle. There are very specific measures that have kept babies alive.
Some of the solutions are simple. It's important to clean umbilical cords to avoid infection, for example, and to give vaccines. Vitamin supplements and breastfeeding can also save lives. Countries that have done a good job of teaching these things to healthcare workers and then supported them with government funding have seen death rates drop.
Save the Children estimates that more than a million babies could be saved each year if they and their mothers had access to steroid injections to prevent preterm labor, resuscitation to save babies who are not breathing at birth, an antiseptic to clean umbilical cords to avoid infections, and injectable antibiotics to treat newborn sepsis and pneumonia. The most expensive of these measures is just $6.
Of the 12 developing countries making the greatest strides, Peru and Brazil rank at the top. Mexico comes in fifth, and Guatemala ranks eighth. Brazil has reduced newborn mortality by more than 60 percent since 1990 and narrowed the healthcare gap between the rich and poor. It provides free care to mothers and deploys healthcare workers to some of the poorest areas. Nearly all births are now attended by a skilled healthcare provider. Breastfeeding and immunizations have increased.
But it takes governments, nonprofits and citizens all working together to make such solutions a reality. There are daunting obstacles, from abject poverty to pure gender discrimination, that hamper their implementation.
One way to get to the root of the problem is education of parents. Less educated women are more likely to be poor and mothers living in poverty are most at risk of giving birth to babies who don't make it. Educated women marry and begin having children later. They are more likely to be financially stable, well-nourished and healthy. Educating boys and men about family planning and maternal health is also critical.
Maternal and newborn death rates are highest in sub-Saharan Africa where poverty is rampant and life-saving measures like anti-malarial nets are scarce. The top countries are in Scandinavia, where universal healthcare is a reality and there is less of an income gap.
The United States has the highest first-day death rate in the industrialized world. More than 11,000 babies in this country die on the day they are born, which is 50 percent more first-day deaths than in all other industrialized countries combined. One reason is that the U.S. has a high preterm birth rate. It also has more teenagers giving birth than any other industrialized country. Babies born to teens are more likely to be premature and weigh less. The solutions involve everything from keeping young women in school longer to making sure every mom and baby has access to healthcare.
It is not an easy thing to solve. But as Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote in the report's foreword, "Saving newborn lives will prevent incalculable suffering."