Prematurity Awareness Month: Amplifying voices of the silent ones

26 Nov, 2023 - 00:11 0 Views
Prematurity Awareness Month: Amplifying voices of the silent ones

The Sunday Mail

IN May, I attended the International Maternal Newborn Health Conference.

Tendai Mutema

During the meeting, one African proverb was repeatedly stated by different speakers: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.”

No truer words can be said when it comes to the health of newborn babies in Zimbabwe.

The world over, November is observed as Prematurity Awareness Month.

This year’s commemorations focused on the welfare of the small and sick babies.

For the past 15 years, November 17 has been observed as World Prematurity Day.

This year’s theme was “Small Actions Big Impacts: Immediate Skin-to-Skin Care for Every Baby Everywhere”.

In the past, pre-term babies were believed to thrive better in incubators.

Research has, however, proved, that the best option is to place any newborn skin-to-skin on its mother’s body.

This has been widely encouraged for full-term babies and has now proved true even for the small and sick babies.

In Zimbabwe and many other African countries, statistics show that only 10 percent of premature babies survive.

This represents one in every 10 pre-term babies born in low-income countries.

That means nine families walk home empty-handed after delivery.

It is because of this that the discussion on the need to continuously improve the care of premature babies has to be unceasing. It is quite heart-breaking when we turn to data from high-income countries, which indicates 90 percent of pre-term babies born there survive.

The immediate question then is: Why the disparities, when it comes to low-income countries?

This year’s theme could be the first step for countries like Zimbabwe in improving the survival chances of our premature babies. A premature baby is defined by the World Health Organisation as one born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The odds are greatly against them, but hope still stands.

Zimbabwe must be commended for its impressive efforts in improving maternal and newborn healthcare.

The new focus now is providing family-centred care for pre-term babies.

The practice in the past was to immediately separate the newborn baby and mother, and stabilise them individually.

Yet now, it is scientifically proven that the separation has adverse effects on both the mother and the child.

Having listened and spoken to a considerable number of mothers of sick and small babies, it is correct to say that they would rather have their tiny yet so perfect child rest, recover and grow in the same environment they lived before birth, and that is on the mother’s skin.

Skin-to-skin care, commonly known as kangaroo care, not only encourages bonding between mother and child, but also improves the latter’s survival chances, particularly in low-income settings.

The journey to saving lives of not just the pre-term babies but also all neonates starts with a healthy and adequately monitored pregnancy.

As a country, we have a firm foundation in terms of maternal health.

I mention maternal health because mostly women with high-risk pregnancies are the ones who end up delivering prematurely.

Hospitals and clinics are the safest place to deliver, not just for the newborn’s health, but also the mother’s.

In the case of a pre-term baby, a hospital with a fully functional neonatal intensive care unit is the best place for them.

Premature babies face an incredibly tough start to life.

Their resilience, however, is incredible.

Their precious yet immature systems need much care and caution as they adapt to a new world they would have entered too soon.

Their developing brains and weak airways are the reason they sometimes literally forget to breathe, a condition called apnea.  Placing a pre-term baby safely on its mother’s skin allows it to gently adapt to its new world.

The mother’s gentle strokes and her own breathing chest act as a natural guide and reminder for the little baby to breathe.

The reverse is also true for the mother. She, too, may forget to breathe, overwhelmed by the intimidating hospital environment, machine sounds and the back and forth of medical teams.

Yet having her baby settling on her chest, on her skin, may just be the only reason she can keep it all together.

For decades, premature babies born in low-income countries have been speaking and begging us to come together and help save their lives.

The statistics of their deaths have been their voices; unfortunately, they have not been loud enough.

The hope now is with the coming in of family-centred care; the voices of the nine families who have walked out of the hospitals without their precious baby can perhaps be heard.

There is desperate need for us all to come together and set up skin-to-skin units in our hospitals, and make small but steady steps towards improving the survival rate of the premature babies of Zimbabwe.

Tendai Mutema is a maternal health advocate and the family lead for the African Neonatal Network. The views expressed in this article are her personal opinions.


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