Uganda loses 45,000 newborns annually, Makerere experts say

Uganda has 1.7 million births every year. PHOTO/ FILE

What you need to know:

  • The researchers attribute this to inadequate health facilities for newborns in Uganda. 

Researchers from Makerere University School of Public Health have called for urgent action to reduce the 45,000 deaths of newborns that occur in the country every year.

Dr Peter Waiswa, a lecturer at the School and one of the leaders in newborn research in the country, said the government needs to increase investment in health facilities and recruit more health personnel required for newborn care.  

“Other countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Ethiopia have invested and are moving. Shall we invest or shall we continue looking at our smallest beings die? Because right now, we have improved a bit, but we are still losing about 45,000 babies –who die either as stillbirths or as newborn babies,” he said.

The country, according to United Nations estimates for 2021, has 1.7 million births every year and the latest Uganda Demographic and Health Survey report for 2022 puts the neonatal mortality (newborn deaths) at 22 deaths per 1,000 live births, a decline from 27 deaths per 1,000 live births reported in 2016. 
Dr Waiswa said the rate at which newborn deaths is declining is not sufficient to attain the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of reducing newborn deaths to 12 per 1,000 babies born.

“We are just five years away to the end of the SDGs. In the last 20 years, Uganda has sort of taken some steps, but now it needs to take off. I think we’ve been mobilising ourselves and trying to improve things, getting more health workers trained, and more hospitals and facilities doing newborn care. But we are not moving fast enough,” he said.

“Uganda is lucky because it has people who are well-trained, and has many health workers, but also we have a lot of data, and we know what to do. The main challenge is we never do things consistently, at scale, and reaching everywhere. And that is the major test. We need to do it faster and we need to do it more and we need to do it very well,” he added. 

Dr Elizabeth Ekirapa, another lecturer and researcher at the School, said 80 percent of health facilities in districts, need to be improved to address the problem of newborn deaths. She said to have the required neonatal care unit in each of these facilities, the country needs to invest $781,429 (about Shs2.9 billion) per unit over six years.

“Most of the money is for human resources ($359,014, about Shs1.3 billion) followed by infrastructure ($271,016, about Shs1 billion). Newborn mortality is the commonest cause of death in hospitals yet we don’t pay a lot of attention to it. We are spending a lot of money on HIV, so we are not asking for too much to improve the survival of newborns. We don’t have neonatal nurses and district hospitals don’t have paediatricians,” she said.

 “We need to start training neonatal nurses. For every dollar you invest in neonatal care, you gain $9-11…The child can grow up to become productive and contribute to economic growth,” she added.

 Dr Ekipara and Dr Waiswa spoke during a meeting in Kampala yesterday where government officials, leaders of civil society organisations, and other researchers attended to discuss the situation of newborn health in the country. 
 Ms Margaret Muhanga, the State minister for Primary Healthcare, said the government would use the evidence and consider recommendations from the researchers to improve the survival of newborns. 

“The Newborn Investment Case presents a strategic approach and financial blueprint aimed at mobilising resources and guiding investments to improve newborn health outcomes focusing on requirements for scaling up newborn care,” she said.