Bill Frist
December 28, 2007
The Washington Times


Will it be a boy or a girl? We'll find out early Tuesday morning in maternity wards across America, when our communities celebrate the arrival of the first lucky babies of 2008.

These children will be blessed with good timing. But, they'll be fortunate in other ways, too. They'll almost certainly be born in a hospital, delivered by nurses and doctors and will have the most advanced medical care available to treat any life-threatening complications. For their parents, the most difficult decision may well be selecting a name.

Compare this to the first baby born this year in a developing country like Afghanistan, Bangladesh or Mali. The beginning of her life will not be so fortunate. She'll most likely be delivered at home, and by a woman who has little or no training on how to handle a complication. Her family will live hours away from the nearest health clinic and will have no transportation to get there if necessary. The baby will go nameless for weeks until her parents feel certain she'll survive.

Each year an estimated 2 million newborns die within their first 24 hours of life and an additional 2 million perish before they are a month old. That's 4 million newborns dying each year in their first month of life - the equivalent of all babies born in the United States each year. Most will die needlessly from causes that can be easily treated or prevented. While mortality rates for children under 5 worldwide have declined significantly in recent decades, little progress has been made in reducing death rates for newborns.

The main killers of almost 10 million children under 5 globally include pneumonia, diarrhea and complications at birth. Fortunately, when these occur in the United States, they are rarely fatal - but not so in the developing world. Among newborns, prematurity and low birth weight, infections and birth asphyxia are all too common and deadly. This is complicated by the fact that 60 million women in the developing world give birth at home each year with no skilled care.

These babies do not have to die. As many as 3 million newborns could be saved each year through access to a package of simple, low- cost services and practices such as immunizing women against tetanus, resuscitating a baby that is not breathing, treating newborn infections promptly, and encouraging immediate breastfeeding after birth. Yet, these measures are not available to all mothers and babies in developing countries.

The U.S. Commitment to Global Child Survival Act, introduced by Reps. Betty McCollum and Chris Shays, and Sens. Chris Dodd and Gordon Smith, would help make these measures available in the developing world, giving babies born in 2008 and beyond a better start in life. This bipartisan legislation, cosponsored by more than 90 senators and representatives, renews U.S. leadership for child and newborn health programs in developing countries while ensuring greater coordination and accountability in the delivery of these services.

Increasing our nation's share of support for child and newborn health programs globally is not only the right thing to do, but it's the smart thing to do. It sends a strong, positive message to other nations by using health as a currency for peace. And these investments will realize returns for many years, aiding babies for generations.

Take Mali, for example, where grandmothers are highly respected and influential in family matters. For decades, many of these women have unknowingly carried out practices passed down through generations that put babies' lives at risk, such as delaying breastfeeding for 24 hours after birth. Grandmothers were trained on healthy newborn care practices and enlisted to help educate new mothers on the merits of breastfeeding. As a result, in many Malian communities, the number of mothers who provide their infants breast milk immediately after birth has increased dramatically, to the benefit of these babies.

Now is the time for governments, the private sector and humanitarian organizations to take collective action to reduce the needless deaths of babies and young children worldwide. That is why I am working with Save the Children on their campaign to help reduce child mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015. With political will and financial commitment, we can save these lives.

But the clock is ticking. We call on Congress to make 2008 the year America recommits itself to leading other governments in saving these millions of children. It's time for the House and Senate to pass the Global Child Survival Act and time for the president to sign it. Without this support, more young lives will be lost.

Let's give communities in rich and poor countries alike a reason to celebrate the birth of a baby, not only on New Year's Day, but on every day of the new year.