NZ to contribute $7m to improve newborn mortality rates in the Pacific

Pacific and General

Foreign Minister Winston Peters has signed off on a further $7 million to go towards reducing the high newborn mortality rates in the Pacific.

The Pacific has some of the world's worst child mortality rates. Nearly 1700 children under 5-years-old died in the Pacific in 2016. More than 80 per cent of those children died within their first year of life and half of those children died in their first 28 days.

A newly released Unicef report shows New Zealand's newborn mortality rate - the numbers of babies who die in their first 28 days, per 1000 births - is the average for a high-income country (3.0 deaths per 1000 births). This is slightly higher than data held by New Zealand's Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Committee (PMMRC), which puts it at 2.79. However, PMMRC's latest data was released in 2015.

Meanwhile, rates in the Pacific are much higher. Kiribati has a rate of 22.6, followed by Vanuatu on 11.8, then Fiji (8.8), Samoa (9.2) and Tonga (6.8).

Unicef NZ executive director Vivien Maidaborn said these mortality rates were "concerning", and is calling for New Zealand to further fund programmes to help mothers and babies access better healthcare.

Since 2013, the New Zealand Government has provided aid funding to Unicef under the Pacific Maternal Newborn and Child Health Initiative. The initiative works closely to develop areas of focus, countries to target and interventions to be supported.

The previous round of funding ran out at the end of last year, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) carried out a review, to establish how effective the programme had been.

Between July 2013 and 2017, Unicef made a noticeable difference, especially in the area of vaccination coverage - which is particularly poor in the Pacific - and nutrition, the review said.

On Tuesday, Peters confirmed New Zealand would continue to support Unicef as a long-standing partner of the New Zealand Aid Programme.

"New Zealand's increased funding will focus on improving child health policies, better early health services such as newborn care, immunisation and nutrition that are both high-impact and low-cost, and stronger health promotion at a community level to increase awareness of, and improve practices that pose risks to child health," he said.

"Funding will help the Solomon Islands, Kiribati and Vanuatu as countries with some of the worst child health indicators."

Maidaborn said this funding, which would go directly to Unicef Pacific, signalled a change of focus for the New Zealand Government.

The money, which was more than what had been given in the past, would go towards early interventions for children, towards inexpensive resources, education and healthcare - things like clean water, immunisations in the hardest to reach places, and community education.

"When New Zealand and Australia stop thinking about the Pacific, there's nobody who has it really close to their heart," she said.

"So when the New Zealand Government makes investments like this, it's seen by Australia and it's very recognised, and it can result in Australia and New Zealand making contributions which add up to being a tipping point."

Almost 60 per cent of New Zealand's $1.7 billion aid budget goes to the Pacific, and a total of 18.6 per cent of aid goes towards education, health and population initiatives.

Earlier this month, Peters said New Zealand's aid spending was in "serious need of review", following "nine years of underfunding by the previous government".

It was important to be a good international citizen, he said, adding that this included helping Pacific neighbours.


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