By Angela Kithua
Every pregnant woman hopes for a healthy baby, born maturely. But the risk of a premature birth is real. Every year, 15 million babies are born prematurely — before 37 weeks of pregnancy — globally.
With one out of every eight babies born preterm, Kenya is ranked 15th with the highest number of premature births globally.
Kenya is one of the 192 countries that have ratified the Global Goals for sustainable development. Goal number three seeks to end preventable newborn and child deaths by 2030.
Some of the most identified causes of preterm births include short intervals between pregnancies, malaria, malnutrition, low weight and age of the mother. Most of these causes can be addressed when identified early — especially when mothers attend antenatal care clinics.
Despite the challenges presented by preterm births, it is possible for the babies to survive and thrive. Preterm babies need extra care to increase their chance of survival. The pain and emotional anxiety that goes with being the parent of a premature baby can be intense.
Because a premature birth can contribute to delayed lactogenesis (onset of milk production), mothers of premature babies require additional support to initiate and support breastfeeding, including psychosocial support and counselling.
A premature birth can also affect a family’s economic welfare due to huge bills arising from prolonged stays in hospital before baby and mother are discharged. Ensuring all mothers are enrolled and benefit from the National Hospital Insurance Fund’s Linda Mama programme would cushion families from debilitating expenditure.
Some innovative and low-cost interventions such as Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), which is prolonged skin-to-skin contact between low birth-weight babies and their mothers, and breastfeeding promotion, could contribute greatly to the survival of premature newborns.
Premature babies face feeding challenges which, if not addressed, can contribute to infections that can lead to death. Breastfeeding is the single most powerful intervention capable of reducing deaths associated with prematurity. However, some premature babies do not have access to their own mother’s milk. Use of alternatives like formula increases the risk of infections.
In the absence of mother’s own milk, the World Health Organisation recommends safe donor human milk as the next best alternative. Unfortunately, safe donor human milk is currently not available in Kenya.
The good news is that Kenya is in the process of establishing the first human milk bank with support from UKAid under the County Innovation Challenge Fund. The human milk bank is being established at Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Nairobi as part of an integrated initiative that also includes breastfeeding promotion.
This innovative model is expected to provide safe, quality donated human milk to vulnerable infants admitted in hospital, improve breastfeeding practices among mothers and improve neonatal health outcomes.
Communities also need to be sensitised against stigmatising premature babies and their mothers. There is need for increased awareness aimed at changing negative attitudes around the issue of premature births.
Additionally, it is important to raise awareness on the available low cost interventions that can improve the survival rates of premature babies. These babies can grow up strong and healthy with the right healthcare and support.
The Ministry of Health and partners need to invest more in lifesaving interventions as part of the push towards universal health coverage — a priority under the government’s Big Four agenda.
—The writer is the programme officer, County Innovation Challenge Fund, PATH an international non-profit health organisation.