We need to do more to reduce newborn deaths

Patients in the maternity ward at Kawempe Referral Hospital in 2016. PHOTO/FILE

What you need to know:

  • Issue: newborn deaths.
  • It is only until the government treats these newborn deaths as an emergency that we shall see a significant drop in the figures.

This week, researchers from Makerere University School of Public Health revealed that Uganda loses 45,000 newborns every year. This, put differently, is about 123 newborns dying daily. 

According to the United Nations estimates for 2021, Uganda has 1.7 million births every year, and the latest Demographic and Health Survey report for 2022 puts newborn deaths at 22 deaths per 1,000 live births, a decline from 27 deaths per 1,000 live births reported in 2016.

According to Unicef, the first 28 days of life – the neonatal period – is the most vulnerable time for a child’s survival. Children face the highest risk of dying in their first month of life at an average global rate of 17 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2022, down by 53 percent from 37 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990.

Over the past decades, government has put up several interventions to deal with this challenge. Although statistics indicate that the numbers are going down, the rate at which neonatal mortality (newborn deaths) is declining is not fast enough.

“We are just five years away to the end of the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals). 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,” said Dr Peter Waiswa, a lecturer at the school and one of the leaders in newborn research in the country.

Despite having some well-trained personnel and a lot of data, Uganda still grapples with high numbers of newborn deaths. Government needs to increase investment in health facilities and recruit more health personnel required for newborn care. About 80 percent of health facilities in districts need to be improved to address the problem of newborn deaths. 

“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,” Dr Elizabeth Ekirapa, another lecturer and researcher at the School, said.

The category of neonatal caregivers needs to be boosted. As of 2021, Uganda had only 500 paediatricians against 22.8 million young people, according to their umbrella body, the Uganda Paediatric Association. This means there is one paediatrician for 45,600 young people.

It is only until the government treats these newborn deaths as an emergency that we shall see a significant drop in the figures.