Zeroing in on fatalities

Joyee Chan

Unicef is teaching expectant mothers to give birth in hospital to end baby mortality

Joyee Chan |

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Two years ago, a family in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan were about to welcome their first baby to the world. But the first cry - signalling the birth never came.

Soon after the delivery, the baby experienced breathing problems. Unfortunately, the midwife had neither the expertise nor the equipment at that remote location to handle the situation, and the baby eventually suffocated.

Unicef China says in 2010, 16 out of every 1,000 infants died before their first birthday. Lack of oxygen at birth is one of the six main preventable, causes of death, the children's charity says.

For the past 60 years, Unicef has been fighting for children's welfare. But it believes its work will not be done until it has achieves zero child deaths from preventable causes. "Every child is entitled to the basic right to live, and to live happily and healthily," says Guo Su-fang, a maternity and child health specialist for Unicef China.

Women living in poor villages, usually located in remote or mountainous regions in China, have been reluctant to give birth in hospitals.

One reason is the long distance between their homes and the hospitals offering such services. They also worry about high transport and hospital fees.

Other people, especially ethnic minorities, prefer to deliver their babies at home because they say other women in their families have done so for many years and they do not trust outsiders.

"Some ethnic minority women believe that, if babies don't survive, it is merely their fate," says Guo.

A doctor in Gansu Province , who has received Unicef training, checks a baby's health.

Delivering a baby at home can pose risks to the mother and child, she says. Without professional training, midwives often are unable to cope if a mother experiences obstructed labour, or bleeds severely, or when the baby cannot get enough oxygen or catches infections from unsterilised equipment.

Since 1999, Unicef China has been encouraging village women to have their babies in hospitals.

Over three years, ending next year, HK$37million is being donated by Hongkongers for projects dealing with maternity and child health. The first move has been to cut the charge for deliveries at hospitals, and provide those in need with money. They also give funds to family members who need to accompany the mother to hospital.

Unicef also worked to shift midwives' job away from helping with deliveries to educating expectant women and also going along to make regular check-ups.

The charity invited senior doctors to give training to inexperienced midwives in town and county hospitals so they can care for women and their children during the pregnancy and birth and also in the days, weeks and months afterwards. Also, essential equipment was donated to hospitals.

The project, which started in only 40remote mainland areas, has been expanded since 2001. Now all village women can enjoy the benefits.

Unicef's maternity campaign had reached Liangshan by the time the Sichuanese mother was pregnant a second time, Guo says. The mother finally agreed - after much persuasion - to go to hospital to give birth, and her new baby was born safe and sound.

Guo says: "We made only a small investment, but the achievements are unthinkably big."

Take part

You can help Unicef by entering the 'Believe in Zero, Make a Video' competition, co-organised by the local Unicef headquarters and Hong Kong Baptist University. Videos should reveal what robs children of life and opportunities, and also provide solutions.

The prize is a Nikon camera and photography course. The deadline is October 31. For details, visit Unicef's website.