Combatting child mortality in Cameroon

Published: 4 May 2017

Martina Baye (centre) with the team from Social Finance
A conversation with Martina Baye of the Ministry of Public Health in Cameroon. 

For the past two years, Social Finance UK, MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and Grand Challenges Canada have been working with Cameroon’s Ministry of Public Health and the Kangaroo Foundation to tackle newborn mortality in Cameroon.

The project aims to use a development impact bond to implement kangaroo mother care (KMC), a cost-effective intervention known to save and improve the lives of low birth weight and pre-term infants, in up to 25 hospitals in Cameroon.

Some of the key partners involved gathered in London last week, in time for International Prematurity Day. We took this opportunity to talk to Dr Martina Baye from the Ministry of Public Health to share her perspective of the project and her vision for improving neonatal care in Cameroon.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Martina Baye and I am a public health physician. I am presently coordinating the national programme to combat maternal, newborn and child mortality in Cameroon.

What are some of the challenges in maternal and newborn health in Cameroon?

Newborn mortality is a preoccupying challenge for us. Out of every 1,000 babies that are born in Cameroon, 60 will die before the age of one year. Cameroon registers over 800,000 deliveries yearly — this means we are losing almost 50,000 babies every year. That’s a lot. That’s unacceptable.

Of all the babies that die before the age of one, half die in the first month of life. The leading cause of neonatal death is low birth weight and prematurity. This means that an intervention must take place within the first 28 days, and we should focus on the most vulnerable infants — preterm and low birth weight babies.

We’re really glad there is a method to help low birth weight and premature babies survive — and thrive — in their first month of life, a method that is affordable and effective. This method is kangaroo mother care.

What is kangaroo mother care?

It’s a very simple, but very effective way of caring for newborns, where the mother becomes the source of warmth, nutrition and stimulation for the child. A mother or family member holds the baby next to their chest, maximising skin-to-skin contact. Exclusive breastfeeding is another important component of the care the baby receives during this period.

What difference does it make for new mothers and their babies?

A few weeks ago I visited Laquintinie hospital in Douala, which is one of the hospitals that has been practising KMC for the past year under the pilot project. I was really, really amazed to see what is happening there with the support of Grand Challenges Canada and the Kangaroo Foundation. In the hospital, I saw mothers who were happy to see their newborns thriving. I saw mothers holding their babies tenderly, so happy that they could provide the warmth and food they need.

We are already starting to see significant results in this new project. For example, in Laquintinie hospital, overall newborn mortality has decreased by 30% in less than a year. That is a huge impact.

What do you hope to achieve through the development impact bond?

KMC has been carried out in Cameroon for a number of years, but on a very, very small scale. To be able to tackle newborn mortality, we need a national approach. Through the development impact bond, we hope to see KMC implemented in several more regions, laying the foundation for it to be scaled across the whole country.

You can see at Laquintinie hospital how well KMC is being delivered and the difference it makes for mothers and their babies — we need more Laquintinies! We are looking forward to having many such hospitals in Cameroon through the project we are embarking upon.

What is the value-add of a development impact bond for scaling up KMC in Cameroon?

The development impact bond gives us a new option for financing innovative and impactful programmes like KMC.

Through this approach, we will be able to access funds to finance the scaling of KMC. These funds will come from social investors, but we, alongside other donors who have come on board, will only repay the money if outcomes are achieved for mothers and their babies.

It’s also an approach that comes with accountability. Everybody involved — the government, the investors, those who are paying for results — is invested in making sure the project is successful and everyone is accountable to each other. That makes a big difference to the overall success of the project. We are all looking forward to achieving impact together. It’s a new and exciting way to work towards our goals and build new partnerships along the way.

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