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Lancet. 2005 Mar 5-11;365(9462):891-900.

4 million neonatal deaths: when? Where? Why?

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  • 1Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children-USA, and International Perinatal Care Unit, Institute of Child Health, London, Cape Town, South Africa.


The proportion of child deaths that occurs in the neonatal period (38% in 2000) is increasing, and the Millennium Development Goal for child survival cannot be met without substantial reductions in neonatal mortality. Every year an estimated 4 million babies die in the first 4 weeks of life (the neonatal period). A similar number are stillborn, and 0.5 million mothers die from pregnancy-related causes. Three-quarters of neonatal deaths happen in the first week--the highest risk of death is on the first day of life. Almost all (99%) neonatal deaths arise in low-income and middle-income countries, yet most epidemiological and other research focuses on the 1% of deaths in rich countries. The highest numbers of neonatal deaths are in south-central Asian countries and the highest rates are generally in sub-Saharan Africa. The countries in these regions (with some exceptions) have made little progress in reducing such deaths in the past 10-15 years. Globally, the main direct causes of neonatal death are estimated to be preterm birth (28%), severe infections (26%), and asphyxia (23%). Neonatal tetanus accounts for a smaller proportion of deaths (7%), but is easily preventable. Low birthweight is an important indirect cause of death. Maternal complications in labour carry a high risk of neonatal death, and poverty is strongly associated with an increased risk. Preventing deaths in newborn babies has not been a focus of child survival or safe motherhood programmes. While we neglect these challenges, 450 newborn children die every hour, mainly from preventable causes, which is unconscionable in the 21st century.

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