Small measures

Editorial Notebook

March 10, 2007|By Brooke Nevils

Every day, about 25 babies are born in Baltimore.

About three of them will be born underweight, leaving them vulnerable to a variety of developmental disabilities and a greatly increased possibility that they will not survive their first month.

But thankfully for all 25, whatever birth complications or infections they suffer during their first few days of life likely will receive prompt medical attention. The three underweight babies will have hospital stays longer than the others, but will soon go home with parents who have been educated about the increased health risks their children face. All 25 have a good chance to grow up to lead long and healthy lives.

Fortunately, they were born in Baltimore. Had these children been born in the Third World, their odds of survival would have been much worse. In Bangladesh, only two would have been in a hospital; the other 23 would be born at home, half with low birth weights and all without a doctor to treat them.

While the worldwide mortality rate among children under 5 has fallen in the last decade, the first-month mortality rate has remained nearly constant. Why? Because nearly all of those deaths occur in the developing world.

Rampant infant death and disease in the Third World is a problem we cannot afford to ignore. The babies who survive face startling obstacles. Their poor health and reduced learning capacities make them more likely to drop out of school, earn lower wages and struggle to support their families throughout their lives - and the cycle of infant death, disease and poverty simply starts over.

But the problem remains out of sight and out of mind. President Bush has proposed only $345 million for international child survival programs in next year's budget, far short of the $660 million the Global Health Council recommended as a minimum.

The organization estimates an additional $5.1 billion per year is needed from the international community to provide basic lifesaving measures.

The United States spends that much in Iraq in two weeks.

While the $345 million will help, the need is growing as this country's funding is stagnating. After adjusting for inflation, the amount of U.S. giving is actually dropping at the time an increase is needed the most.

"We're doing a lot of work to try to define exactly what very simple interventions or types of care can save these babies," said Gary Darmstadt, director of the Johns Hopkins International Center for Advancing Neonatal Health. "One of the big challenges is to raise people's awareness and to get funding support for providing these very simple, lifesaving things."

After Save the Children, an international advocacy organization, reported that simple, cost-effective measures such as caps to maintain body warmth could save the lives of many of these babies, the organization received nearly 300,000 handmade hats, which it will distribute in Bangladesh and Malawi.

Forty-two of them were knitted by sixth-graders at the Waldorf School of Baltimore.

"I told them about the fragility of newborns, and what can happen if they don't have enough warmth," said their teacher, Victoria Mansuri. "I have them do something for charity every year because I want them to grow up to be human beings who think of others, who consider others in need."

Americans are not indifferent to the suffering of others, but it can seem like there is little we can do about such an overwhelming problem. The baby cap campaign demonstrates that even our smallest efforts can save lives. Similarly, basic medical treatment for dysentery and pneumonia, and funding for skilled birth attendants and standard immunizations, can save three out of four infant lives.

That's a powerful incentive to act.

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