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Latest Frontier In Reducing Childhood Mortality: Neonatal Deaths

If you want to live a long life, it's critical to survive the first month after birth, when humans are especially vulnerable.

Neonatal mortality — death within the first 28 days of birth — is getting more public health attention, as countries around the world strive to meet a United Nations goal of dramatically reducing childhood mortality by 2015.

There's been a lot of progress. Since 1990, the number of kids under 5 dying developing countries has declined to about to 72 deaths per 1,000 from 100 per 1,000, the U.N. has estimated. But that's not quite enough to meet the target.

A new U.N. study zeroes in on neonatal mortality and finds widespread improvements around the world since 1990. "As the risk of children dying before the age of five has fallen, the proportion of child deaths that occur in the neonatal period has increased," the authors of the study note. Reductions in non-neonatal deaths rates from infectious diseases, such as measles, malaria and AIDS, have increased the share of deaths happening very early.

Neonatal mortality rates have climbed in eight countries, including five in Africa. And around the world 41 percent of deaths in kids under five now happen during the period soon after birth.

The study authors say most neonatal deaths could be averted by doing what already is known to work, ranging from improving maternal health to keeping babies warm.

More progress requires better reporting and estimation of neonatal death rates, the authors write:

Many of the 79 million babies who died in the neonatal period since 1990 were born with little or no access to health services and in settings with little health information to drive health system improvement. If [the U.N. 2105 goal] is to be achieved, and this needless loss of life prevented, it is essential that national governments, international agencies, and civil society increase attention to systematically preventing and tracking neonatal deaths.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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