Background: Globally, approximately 3 million babies die annually within their first month. Access to adequate care at birth is needed to reduce newborn as well as maternal deaths. We explore the influence of distance to delivery care and of level of care on early neonatal mortality in rural Zambia and Malawi, the influence of distance (and level of care) on facility delivery, and the influence of facility delivery on early neonatal mortality.
Methods and findings: National Health Facility Censuses were used to classify the level of obstetric care for 1131 Zambian and 446 Malawian delivery facilities. Straight-line distances to facilities were calculated for 3771 newborns in the 2007 Zambia DHS and 8842 newborns in the 2004 Malawi DHS. There was no association between distance to care and early neonatal mortality in Malawi (OR 0.97, 95%CI 0.58-1.60), while in Zambia, further distance (per 10 km) was associated with lower mortality (OR 0.55, 95%CI 0.35-0.87). The level of care provided in the closest facility showed no association with early neonatal mortality in either Malawi (OR 1.02, 95%CI 0.90-1.16) or Zambia (OR 1.02, 95%CI 0.82-1.26). In both countries, distance to care was strongly associated with facility use for delivery (Malawi: OR 0.35 per 10km, 95%CI 0.26-0.46). All results are adjusted for available confounders. Early neonatal mortality did not differ by frequency of facility delivery in the community.
Conclusions: While better geographic access and higher level of care were associated with more frequent facility delivery, there was no association with lower early neonatal mortality. This could be due to low quality of care for newborns at health facilities, but differential underreporting of early neonatal deaths in the DHS is an alternative explanation. Improved data sources are needed to monitor progress in the provision of obstetric and newborn care and its impact on mortality.