By Whitney Akinyi

To prevent babies from being born underweight, too early and too small, a group of scientists have released a Lancet report on preventive interventions to curb pregnancy complications and child mortality rate in Kenya and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Globally, the statistics are alarming, with one in every four babies classified as either “born too small” or “born too soon.” This grim reality results in 1.9 million stillbirths and 1.4 million newborn deaths annually. The repercussions extend beyond infancy, affecting human capital, economic productivity, and healthcare costs for survivors.

This groundbreaking series highlights the urgent need for standardized data, technology, and high-quality prenatal information as preventive measures to address the soaring rates of newborns born either too small or too soon. Sub-Saharan Africa currently faces the highest rate, with a staggering 20% of newborns falling into this category.

The Lancet Series introduces a novel conceptual framework that unifies preterm birth, small for gestational age (SGA), and low birth weight (LBW) under the term “small vulnerable newborns” (SVNs). This terminology provides a shared understanding, enabling global and local stakeholders to collaborate effectively.

According to the report, the series estimates that implementing cost-effective pregnancy interventions in low- and middle-income countries could prevent 566,000 stillbirths and 5.2 million preterm or underweight births each year. The estimated cost for these interventions by 2030 stands at $1.1 billion.

These low-cost, evidence-based interventions encompass multiple micronutrient supplements, syphilis treatment, and the management of asymptomatic bacteriuria. Targeted measures include low-dose aspirin, balanced protein energy supplements, malaria prevention during pregnancy, vaginal progesterone, and smoking cessation. Recognizing and upholding girls’ and women’s reproductive rights are integral components of preventing pregnancy complications and adverse outcomes.

Speaking during the Lancet Series launch, Dr. Job Nyangena, Acting Head of the Division of Health Informatics, Ministry of Health, reaffirmed the government’s commitment to implementing these preventive measures, emphasizing the importance of technological specifications and standardization.

“Although addressing the issue of small vulnerable newborns has been on the global agenda for years, global trends show that the situation has not improved. This indicates a pressing need for national actors, along with global partners, to commit to providing high-quality care for all women during pregnancy and at birth,” said Dr. Job Nyangena.

Prof. Marleen Temmerman, Director of Aga Khan University’s Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health, East Africa (CoEWCH EA), asserts that the prevention of small vulnerable newborns is a moral imperative, demanding investments in early, high-quality antenatal and childbirth care, as well as girls and women’s reproductive rights.

“One out of four babies is born too early, too small, or stillborn. It is our moral duty to invest in the prevention of small vulnerable newborns through early and high-quality antenatal and childbirth care and through girls and women’s reproductive rights,” said the professor.

In a bid to advocate for SVNs’ prevention, Aga Khan University’s Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health, East Africa (CoEWCH EA), in collaboration with the Small Vulnerable Newborn Consortium, will be hosting the regional launch of the Lancet Series in Nairobi. This event aims to unite academics, healthcare professionals, policy experts, and parents of SVNs, sharing insights from the series, advocating for prevention, and discussing local opportunities to drive change.

“The launch calls for relevant actors to urgently prioritize action, advocate for, and invest in the prevention of small vulnerable newborns to reverse the current trend, reduce small vulnerable newborns’ outcomes, and ultimately save the lives of millions of babies. 20% of babies born in Sub-Saharan Africa are small vulnerable newborns, yet prevention is possible. This is the challenge we all need to tackle, the Nairobi launch aims to help us do this,'” said Dr. Abdu Mohiddin, Physician Scientist and Assistant Professor at the Aga Khan University.

The Lancet Series and regional launches have received support from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Experts from institutions such as the Aga Khan University, Tampere University, Johns Hopkins University and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University College London, and the University of Botswana have been instrumental in this critical initiative