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Premature Babies, Most Vulnerable Members Of Society – Onyegbule



Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative is a pet project of Petra Onyegbule, the chief press secretary to the Kogi State governor. In this interview with TUNDE OGUNTOLA, the passionate civil servant and care giver, stresses the need for the federal government and relevant stakeholders to tackle the growing death rate of children born premature, in Nigeria


What is the big thing about the World Prematurity Day?

The World Prematurity Day was initiated by EFCNI and partnering European parent organisations in 2008. It is a day set aside to raise awareness on the challenges and burden of preterm birth globally. On that day, we honour the memories of babies born too soon and lost the survival battle as well as raise support for babies born preterm and still battling to stay alive. Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative was incorporated by the Corporate Affairs Commission in September 2013 and we have joined in the global commemoration of World Prematurity Day since November 2013.

What is the significance of the 2018 theme of World Prematurity Day?

Often times when we talk about maternal and child health and issues connected therewith, we tend to make it about government and hospitals only. We forget that the family plays a significant role in addressing some, if not most of the attendant issues with maternal and child health. So the theme for WPD this year is: ‘’Working Together: Partnering with Families in the Care of Small and Sick Newborns’.’ Small and sick newborns refer to babies born preterm and babies with low birth weight even though they were born at term. The theme calls us to recognise the important role families play in the care of these babies and empower them with the tools they need to do better. It simply means that the family is recognised as being on the continuum of care and must be encouraged and empowered to play their role effectively for optimal results.

What is the role of the family in bringing down the rate of preterm birth?

The family plays a very strong role in bringing down the rate of preterm birth and death because most of the risk factors are predominantly domiciled within the family. Preterm birth begins in the family. Family must first and foremost plan to be pregnant and if possible with their doctor. The family must be eager to arm itself with information and new knowledge on how to experience safe pregnancies; the family that is pregnant must register for and attend antenatal clinics; the family that is pregnant must maintain a healthy lifestyle/desist from harmful practices in accordance with medical advice; family members must provide emotional and psychological support for their pregnant member; a pregnant woman must go to the doctor with complaints and not self-medicate nor patronise quacks/unqualified people for medical advice. Everything begins in the family before it gets to the medical team who do their best. Even the decision to go to the hospital during preterm labour and whether or not to go, promptly lies with the family. So in all this, the family has a really huge role to play and if families play their part well, we will begin to have a reduction in the rate of preterm births in Nigeria.

We lose babies born premature, how can this be solved?

Loosing premature babies is a national problem. It is a blight on our collective conscience. We must first recognise that it is a more serious problem than we are taking it. As much as loosing children born premature is a global problem, we should be very concerned about its rate and effects on our nation in terms of our development and even our economy. We must sit up and acknowledge that we have not done enough about it and commit to doing better and act, with every sense of urgency and responsibility. This problem won’t fix itself. All hands must be on deck. Premature babies are the most vulnerable members of our society and it is disgraceful that we do not consider them a priority. No Nigerian baby deserves to die not even those born premature.

What is the role of the federal government in curbing premature deaths?

The federal government has a number of policies in place to curb death of premature babies, as the biggest contributor to neonatal deaths in Nigeria. Whether these policies are being implemented and in a holistic manner to curb achieve its purpose, remains to be seen, the statistics answer in the negative. The federal government must invest in advocacy and support initiatives to reduce the death of premature babies by preventing it. Prevention is cheaper, safer, and the next frontier. Additionally, cost of antenatal care should be very minimal, if not absolutely free so that no pregnant woman has an excuse to not go for antenatal and this advice goes to states too. The enabling environment for professionals to work must be created and sustained. The brain drain we have been witnessing as a country has a huge impact on the war against the death of premature babies.

Has the government being supportive?

My state government has been very supportive. As the chief press secretary to the Kogi State Governor, Tiny Beating Hearts Initiative has received tremendous support from Governor Yahaya Bello, who is well committed to this cause as a lover of children and the vulnerable.

What is the expected role or roles of the federal government?

Invest more in awareness, invest more in researches, invest more in strengthening the healthcare system in Nigeria for effective service delivery this includes investing more in equipping neonatal units. The federal government is working hard to improve economic conditions of Nigeria, more can be done as socioeconomic factors play a major role in predisposing pregnant women to premature births.

Preterm birth are a leading cause of death among children, tell us what we need to do to halt this.

Simple, by doing all we can to stop the deaths and also if possible, do all we can to reduce it to the barest minimum. Where premature birth becomes inevitable as the case is sometimes, do all we can to give the babies a fighting chance.

Lack of incubators seem to be one of the factors leading to this avoidable deaths, what can be done?

I will answer this question from different levels because there is a clear problem of lack of adequate incubators than there is lack of information on where to get functional incubators. There is also the problem of cost. Caring for preemies is not cheap anywhere in the world. Public hospitals are heavily subsidised. However, the facilities are not enough for the growing rate of premature births, which must be curbed. But this is not the case in private hospitals and where the bills are not affordable, death of babies is inevitable. Sometimes, parents even have the money but they do not know where to go and whilst they frantically move from one hospital to the other in search of an incubator, they watch the life literally leave their little babies.

We have read many of such stories which is why TBHI is using technology to solve this problem. On November 17, we shall be launching an app which will help those who need incubators locate hospitals with incubators in their city. And where the contact details are available, they call and make enquiries so they know where to go. For people without internet-enabled devices, we are launching a short code service on the same day which allows a parents with a preterm baby to send a text of their location to a code and we will respond and send contact details of hospitals with incubator and neonatal services.

Although Kangaroo Mother-care is a cost effective alternative to an incubator, it does not work for every preemie as some preterm babies need more than regulated and controlled temperature. Some preterm babies need oxygen and other very specialised care which can only be given in a special care baby unit or a neonatal intensive care unit and by professionals.