Background: Inequities in both health status and coverage of health services are considered important barriers to achieving Millennium Development Goal 4. Community-based health promotion is a strategy that is believed to reduce inequities in rural low-income settings. This paper examines the contributions of community-based programming to improving the equity of newborn health in three districts in Malawi.
Methods: This study is a before-and-after evaluation of Malawi's Community-Based Maternal and Newborn Care (CBMNC) program, a package of facility and community-based interventions to improve newborn health. Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) within the catchment area of 14 health facilities were trained to make pregnancy and postnatal home visits to promote healthy behaviors and assess women and newborns for danger signs requiring referral to a facility. "Core groups" of community volunteers were also trained to raise awareness about recommended newborn care practices. Baseline and endline household surveys measured the coverage of the intervention and targeted health behaviors for this before-and-after evaluation. Wealth indices were constructed using household asset data and concentration indices were compared between baseline and endline for each indicator.
Results: The HSAs trained in the intervention reached 36.7% of women with a pregnancy home visit and 10.9% of women with a postnatal home visit within three days of delivery. Coverage of the intervention was slightly inequitable, with richer households more likely to receive one or two pregnancy home visits (concentration indices (CI) of 0.0786 and 0.0960), but not significantly more likely to receive a postnatal visit or know of a core group. Despite modest coverage levels for the intervention, health equity improved significantly over the study period for several indicators. Greater improvements in inequities were observed for knowledge indicators than for coverage of routine health services. At endline, a greater proportion of women from the poorest quintile knew three or more danger signs for pregnancy, delivery, and postpartum mothers than did women from the least poor quintile (change in CI: -0.1704, -0.2464, and -0.4166, respectively; p < 0.05). Equity also significantly improved for coverage of some health behaviors, including delivery at a health facility (change in CI: -0.0591), breastfeeding within the first hour (-0.0379), and delayed bathing (-0.0405).
Conclusions: Although these results indicate promising improvements for newborn health in Malawi, the extent to which the CBMNC program contributed to these improvements in coverage and equity are not known. The strategies through which community-based programs are implemented likely play an important role in their ability to improve equity, and further research and program monitoring are needed to ensure that the poorest households are reached by community-based health programs.