Program in Global Newborn Health and Social Change

Program Director: Sadath Sayeed, JD, MD,

Program Background
Newborns are perhaps the most vulnerable patient population in the world. Not only are they biologically immature and therefore uniquely susceptible to a range of life-threatening illnesses, they are also wholly dependent on others to advocate for their health and welfare. Perhaps no other statistic testifies to the newborn child’s precarious biosocial position than this: every year, nearly 4 million babies die before reaching the age of one month. These deaths exceed the death toll due to any single human infectious disease, including HIV/AIDs, yet they remain largely outside the consciousness of the global- health community.

The Program in Global Newborn Health and Social Change, housed within the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School, is an interdisciplinary initiative that seeks not merely to understand, but also to solve, some of the most pressing health-related challenges facing infants born into adverse social circumstances. The Program offers opportunities for students, residents, fellows, and faculty from across Harvard University and elsewhere to think critically both about the needs of society’s least-visible population and about the current inadequacy of our collective response. Although the Program aims to complement other initiatives at Harvard focused on child health and welfare, it is distinctive in its focus on improving the quality of newborn health care delivery.

Not surprisingly, 99 percent of these tragically early deaths occur in disadvantaged settings around the globe. When babies are born into poverty, they die most often of treatable conditions, including pneumonia and prematurity. As many as 70 percent of neonatal deaths could be prevented with known, simple, nonintensive interventions: basic resuscitation, management of low birth weight, and treatment of sepsis. Yet such low-cost, proven treatments remain difficult to implement in resource-poor settings, a reality that speaks to the pressing need for professionals with an interest in reducing global health disparities to address the “97/3” gap: of the scarce research funds aimed at reducing child mortality, 97 percent are directed at the development of new technologies, while only 3 percent are spent on operational research to determine how to best deliver existing interventions to mothers and children who need them most.