It has been called the most dangerous minute of a person’s life. For 829,000 babies each year, it’s the beginning of the end.

In the first minute after birth, an infant must inhale, pop open millions of microscopic air sacs and take the first of numberless breaths that will sustain life for decades. For the majority of newborns, this happens naturally. Some, however, require help, and in too many places around the world, they’re not getting it.

The Helping Babies Breathe campaign, an international effort to prevent “birth asphyxia,” was rolled out in Washington last week with the goal of teaching midwives and traditional birth attendants in poor countries how to gently nudge newborns into the world of respiration.

The tools include a dry towel, a suction bulb and a hand-operated bag-and-mask resuscitator.

A key concept in the Helping Babies Breathe campaign is that simple actions can save a limp baby, but they must be done quickly.

Little equipment (and no electricity) is required for newborn resuscitation. More than 80 percent of newborns will breathe spontaneously right after birth. About 10 percent will need the stimulation of being dried off and having their nose and mouth gently suctioned. Five percent will need “positive pressure ventilation,” either by mask or mouth.

About 7.7 million children will die this year before age 5, according to an estimate published this month in the Lancet, a medical journal. Birth asphyxia will account for 9 percent of the deaths; it accounts for one-quarter of deaths in the first month of life.

Experts say better instruction in newborn resuscitation could reduce deaths from birth asphyxia by about 30 percent and deaths attributed to premature birth by up to 10 percent. They say 500,000 lives a year might be saved.


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