This month, the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine published a special issue that sheds new light on the indissoluble links between the health of a mother and that of her newborn baby. Its release comes just weeks after the Global Newborn Health Conference, and simultaneously with a State of the World’s Mothers 2013 report revealing that a baby’s first day is the most dangerous of its life.
That interconnections exist between maternal and newborn health is well known. Most maternal deaths are caused by the woman’s poor health before or during pregnancy, or by inadequate care in the critical hours and days during and just after childbirth; the same is true for most newborn deaths. And when a woman dies after giving birth, her death is far too often followed by the death of her newborn baby. And we know, based on substantial evidence, which interventions are best for improving maternal health and saving women’s lives, and which are effective for improving newborn survival.
What we didn’t sufficiently understand, until now, was the range of interventions that bring health and survival benefits to both mother and newborn. In this new study, a research team from Aga Khan University in Pakistan, working in collaboration with Family Care International and with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, looked at more than 150 interventions, assessing them for impact on both maternal and neonatal outcomes. They then grouped the interventions into “packages of care” that can be effectively delivered at each of the key levels of care: community, health center, and hospital.
This study advances our knowledge in important ways. It reinforces the widely-recognized benefits, for women and their babies, of high-quality antenatal care, skilled birth attendance, and postpartum care, which are still too often insufficiently, ineffectively, or inequitably delivered. It highlights the crucial role of family planning, which can be used to delay and space pregnancies. It identifies a number of areas — including management of preconception diabetes, treatment of maternal depression, and community-based approaches for improving birth preparedness and care-seeking — which are currently neglected but could significantly improve maternal and newborn outcomes.
Most importantly, the findings send a clear message: that greater integration of maternal and newborn care — and, more broadly, of services across the reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health (RMNCH) continuum of care — is one of our most promising strategies for strengthening efforts to save women’s and children’s lives.
This kind of integration may sound like an obvious step, but it is not always easy. Integration of services is critical if countries are to make substantial progress towards national health goals. It forces policy makers, donors, program managers, and health workers to find common ground among their varying constituencies, goals, and agendas; to understand the needs of women and their babies in new and different ways; and to design services that respond to these needs. It requires that the physical, financial, and human architecture of the health system be designed and constructed to efficiently and equitably deliver high-quality services across the continuum of care.
And yet, progress on reducing maternal and newborn deaths has been too slow, and far too many women and babies die every day. Recognizing and acting on the crucial interconnections between maternal and newborn health revealed by this study, and the broader linkages that tie together the RMNCH continuum, can help save the lives of millions of women and children. The time to take action is now.