No child too far: Ewan McGregor on UNICEF’s work reaching fragile newborns in India

Ewan McGregor recounts an emotional visit to a pioneering unit saving tiny lives in one of the poorest parts of India

It was my first trip to India with UNICEF and I had come to the city of Patna in the western state of Bihar.

As we were driving through the city I was overwhelmed by the poverty: children everywhere, playing in places that children should not be playing. Places covered in rubbish and feces. It made me realize how incredibly difficult these children’s lives are.

I was in Patna to see UNICEF’s work helping to tackle the high rate of newborn mortality in India’s second-poorest state. Nearly half of the population live below the poverty line in Bihar, surviving on less than $1 a day. Because of this, when mums-to-be are carrying their babies they struggle to find enough food. Often, that means babies are born tiny, weak and struggling to survive.

Of the one in 20 babies who die before their first birthday, more than half do so in their first 28 days of life. Malnutrition in pregnant women is a major cause of this high rate of newborn mortality.

The first stop on our trip was a newborn special care unit in Vaishali, which is a hectic town an hour’s drive away from Patna. The centre was set up by UNICEF in 2008 to provide life-saving specialist care for these desperately ill newborn babies, after recognizing that the soaring numbers of babies dying in their first 28 days of life had to be tackled.

That’s the way UNICEF works in India. It identifies the problem then sets up something and shows the government how well it has worked so they can take over and replicate it across the state and country. The government has now set up four more specialist care units just like the one in Vaishali in other parts of Bihar. This collaborative way of working shows how effective and vital organizations like UNICEF can be.

As soon as we stepped inside the unit I was taken aback by the silence. All the babies were so fragile that their tiny bodies didn’t have the energy to make any noise.

But the centre was brilliant. It had beds for 12 tiny babies; babies who wouldn’t stand a chance at life if this centre hadn’t been there. Most of them had little woolly hats on their heads, to keep them warm.

I met one mum, Sangeeta, whose baby was only seven days old. He was born weighing just 1 lb. Like all the mums waiting for news, she had to wait outside the centre in a room that looks like a bus shelter, swarming with flies. She was too scared to leave the waiting room in case the worst happened.

All the women I met at the centre were going through the same thing. They just sit outside waiting, sometimes for up to three or four weeks, not knowing if their baby is going to live or die.

Some babies don’t make it. That’s what happened for one mum, Musken. She was barely older than a child herself, but she had waited four weeks: 28 long days and nights, without leaving that bus shelter of a waiting room to find out if her baby Munna would survive, only for him to finally lose his struggle for life.

It shouldn’t be like that. But it does show why the care the centre provides is so desperately needed, so more vulnerable babies like Munna have a chance at life.

And there is hope. The doctor was telling me about the survival rate in the centre and I asked him what it was before it was there. He just shook his head at me as if that was a stupid question, because none of them would have survived. Now 80 per cent make it.

The mums and babies who use the centre are mostly from the lowest Indian caste, the Dailats. Without the free treatment the place provides, those mums and their babies would have no hope. This centre is their only chance at life.

I will never forget the babies I met during my time there. I will never forget seeing how tiny they were, lying on their own in beds under the heat lamps.

But that’s what UNICEF is about – helping the hardest to reach children and their families survive.

Learn more and donate to support UNICEF’s work at www.unicef.ca