Bolivian mother with newborn child
Bolivia comes in at number 75 out of 125 countries, ranked according to the overall health and well-being of mothers and children, in this year’s Mothers’ Index in Save the Children's 2006 State of the World's Mothers report.
Why is this country ranked below so many others? Bertha Pooley, the national advisor for Save the Children's newborn health program in Bolivia sheds light on the issue of health care for mothers and newborns below:
Beyond the ranking, what is the situation really like for mothers and newborns in Bolivia?
Bertha Pooley: The newborn death rate is three times higher in the poorest municipalities than in the highest. There is national health care, but the [newborn] population has been neglected because we are just discovering that one of the most important stages of life is the first 28 days.
Before, we were focusing on preventing illness in children over 2 years old, but then we began to discover that 70 percent die before they are 7 days old. Why were these babies dying? They had infections or diarrhea. They lacked vaccinations. They had respiration problems or they were born prematurely.
And the mothers?
Pooley: The relationship between the mothers and babies is very important. The respiratory problems of babies are usually directly related to what happens during labor. Low birthweight is directly affected by the mother’s pregnancy. If we want healthy babies, we have to have healthy mothers.
After the birth, is it true that umbilical cords are sometimes cut by using broken pieces of clay pots and babies are fed tea or urine, instead of breast milk, in their first few days of life.
Pooley: This is very common in Andean culture. The problem with pottery is that sometimes it can infect the cord, so we recommend that they use a new razor blade instead. If they prefer to use a traditional clay pot, we recommend they boil it first, for at least 20 minutes. Some cultures put drops of urine in the newborn’s mouth to cleanse it. It is a mix of religious and cultural customs.
They also delay the feeding of the baby because the first milk - it is called colostrum - is yellowish and many think it is impure. We had to explain to them that this milk was the most important because it’s like a vaccine for the baby. Before, they waited one or two days to breastfeed and would give babies chamomile tea in bottles.
How has this presented challenges to teaching safer care for newborns?
Pooley: We haven’t been teaching. We have been establishing communication with the mothers in the communities to exchange ideas. It is important to have this type of communication because they are going to teach us some things, too.
What is the main message you are trying to get through to mothers and midwives who come to your sessions?
Pooley: It has to do with several very basic things: warm and wrap the baby after delivery, early breastfeeding and delaying the baby’s first bath for 48 hours (because one of the problems that newborns have is they can develop hypothermia). You have to remember La Paz is 14,000 feet above sea level and it gets cold.
For instance, with small or premature babies a method like kangaroo care, where a mother can position the baby to have skin-to-skin contact with her, transmits a warmth between the bodies that can prevent hypothermia. If they have a low temperature, then this method can raise it and the beat of the mother’s heart can give the baby a rhythm for the beat of his or her own heart.
We are not saying that we are going to replace incubators, but it is important to have kangaroo care as an alternative for rural areas.The important message here is that we can save babies with low-tech, accessible methods that we can afford.
It’s amazing that something as simple as a mother’s warmth can save a baby’s life.
Pooley: I think everything is amazing! A baby’s life is amazing; to work with the Bolivian government is amazing; to see that things can get done with little money is amazing. Sometimes it is invisible things that make a difference. This message of saving newborn lives guarantees not only life, but a quality of life for this new generation.