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Commentary: A better beginning for the world's babies

  • Story Highlights
  • Tom Kalil: Many newborns died last year from treatable, preventable problems
  • Very simple and low-cost interventions could have saved them, Kalil says
  • A kit that costs $10 will be distributed by several organizations, he says
  • Kalil: Solutions to many problems aren't clear, but the solution to this one is clear
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By Tom Kalil
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: The Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton, is meeting in New York this week, focusing on issues such as health, poverty and climate change. Tom Kalil is chairman of the initiative's global health working group and special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California, Berkeley. In the Clinton administration, Kalil was deputy assistant for technology and economic policy and deputy director of the White House Economic Council.

Tom Kalil says an inexpensive kit can save the lives of many newborns.

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Last year, 9.2 million children didn't make it to their fifth birthday. Of these, roughly 4 million children died within the first 28 days of life -- the newborn period.

Many of these newborns die for reasons that are easily treatable or preventable. Their lives could be saved with very simple and low-cost interventions. For example, birth attendants can wash their hands before helping with a delivery, and use a clean blade to cut the umbilical cord.

Mothers can breast-feed their babies within an hour after birth and provide exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months.

This week, a group of leading organizations are joining together to help give moms and dads around the world tools and information to help their newborns survive. PATH (a Seattle-based nonprofit), Save the Children, and Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health will commit to create and distribute a "Better Beginning for Babies" kit.

Their goal is to raise at least $20 million over five years and reach 2 million newborns, and set the stage for a much larger and more ambitious global movement.

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The Better Beginning for Babies kit will contain a combination of basic commodities (e.g. soap, a clean blade, a clean cord tie, a sheet of plastic) and educational materials on simple practices to improve newborn care.

Save The Children will mobilize volunteers to help knit caps to help keep newborns warm. Community health workers will distribute the newborn care kits and the caps to families in countries where infant mortality is especially high, and provide expectant mothers with counseling.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins and other universities are discovering additional low-cost interventions that could save even more lives. For example, in South Asia, newborn deaths can be reduced by 20 percent with a vitamin A supplement. Future generations of the kit will be improved to incorporate these research findings.

Making and delivering the kit will cost only $10, and our hope is that many people and organizations will be inspired to sponsor kits at whatever level they can afford, similar to the success of the anti-malaria bed-net campaign.

The world is a complex place these days, and there are many problems for which the answers aren't clear. Here, though, the answers are clear. It's a matter of sharing basic tools and promoting some simple newborn care practices. The difference is a healthy newborn baby rather than a tragic, premature death.

There are many ways in which individuals, philanthropists, companies and nonprofits could get involved in supporting this critical initiative.

• As individuals, $10 to help save the life of a baby is something that we can all afford.

• Media and Internet companies could help publicize the initiative -- encouraging millions of Americans to get involved.

• Employers could match the donations of their employees.

• Toy and clothing companies could pledge a small amount of the price of their products to support this effort.

• Churches and service organizations could commit to raise enough money to support thousands or even millions of kits.

Each of us has the potential to make the world a better and more humane place. Working together, there are no limits to what we can accomplish.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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