PH's 'Unang Yakap' can save babies in Western Pacific

MANILA, Philippines – There is a non-costly way to save thousands of newborn babies from dying every year in the Western Pacific Region, and the concept was born in the Philippines.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) launched on  Thursday, March 5, its regional campaign for Unang Yakap (First Embrace), which provides simple steps to improve health care services for babies during the first critical hours.

The concept is simple: there should be immediate skin-to-skin contact between the mother and the baby shortly after birth. The concept for this Essential Newborn Care Protocol was born in the Philippines after a 2008 deadly sepsis outbreak in a Manila hospital.

"In many ways, First Embrace is a return to basics," WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific Shin Young-soo said.

"WHO calls on governments, stakeholders, and partners to support the First Embrace and the regional action plan for healthy newborn infants," Shin said. (READ: Protecting the newborn and the unborn)


In the Philippines, for every 1,000 live births, 14 die of neonatal mortality. The numbers are higher in other Western Pacific countries, like Lao People's Democratic Republic with 27 deaths. (READ: Million babies a year die within 24 hours: report)

"We have global studies that show that with every delay in initiation of breastfeeding, you increase the risk of death," said Dr Howard Sobel, WHO regional coordinator for reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health.

With skin-to-skin contact, a baby would mostly likely go on and breastfeed. Sobel said colostrum or the first milk acts like the baby’s first immunization because it has essential nutrients, antibodies, and immune cells. (READ: Why you should care about breastfeeding)

Skin-to-skin contact is also a baby's protection mechanism against infection. 

First Embrace involves other routine steps, such as proper clamping and cutting of umbilical cord, provision of needed vitamins and immunizations, examinations, and weighing. 

Scaling up

It took a while before Filipino health workers changed delivering practices. For the longest time, babies would be inappropriately suctioned, and their umbilical cords immediately cut.

What’s worse, babies would be separated from their mother at a crucial time when they look for their mother’s breast for milk.

"Only after other procedures, some of which carried potential harm, would they be carried back to families,” said Dr Maria Asuncion Silvestre, a pediatric neonatologist who consults for WHO.

Things started to change after the 2008 outbreak of sepsis, a severe newborn infection. A probe into the outbreak revealed there were numerous breaches in standard procedure for newborn care.

In 2009, the Essential Newborn Care Protocol became a Department of Health policy. Today, First Embrace is practiced in large hospitals in several regions.

From only 10% of newborn babies in the Philippines getting skin-to-skin contact in 2008, a 2013 demographic and health survey revealed that the numbers have improved: 60% of babies are getting early essential newborn care, according to Sobel.

The country hopes to scale up the First Embrace practice in all regions and all facilities where births take place.

Jee Y. Geronimo

Jee is part of Rappler's Central Desk, handling most of the world, science, and environment stories on the site. She enjoys listening to podcasts and K-pop, watching Asian dramas, and running long distances. She hopes to visit Israel someday to retrace the steps of her Savior.