Neonatal sepsis is a major cause of neonatal mortality. In populations with limited access to health care, early identification of bacterial infections and initiation of antibiotics by community health workers (CHWs) could be lifesaving. It is unknown whether this strategy would be feasible using traditional birth attendants (TBAs), a cadre of CHWs who typically have limited training and educational backgrounds.
We analyzed data from the intervention arm of a cluster-randomized trial involving TBAs in Lufwanyama District, Zambia, from June 2006 to November 2008. TBAs followed neonates for signs of potential infection through 28 days of life. If any of 16 criteria were met, TBAs administered oral amoxicillin and facilitated referral to a rural health center.
Our analysis included 1,889 neonates with final vital status by day 28. TBAs conducted a median of 2 (interquartile range 2–6) home visits (51.4% in week 1 and 48.2% in weeks 2–4) and referred 208 neonates (11%) for suspected sepsis. Of referred neonates, 176/208 (84.6%) completed their referral. Among neonates given amoxicillin, 171/183 (93.4%) were referred; among referred neonates, 171/208 (82.2%) received amoxicillin. Referral and/or initiation of antibiotics were strongly associated with neonatal death (for referral, relative risk [RR]57.93, 95% confidence interval [CI]54.4–14.3; for amoxicillin administration, RR54.7, 95% CI52.4–8.7). Neonates clinically judged to be ‘‘extremely sick’’ by the referring TBA were at greatest risk of death (RR58.61, 95% CI54.0–18.5).
The strategy of administering a first dose of antibiotics and referring based solely on the clinical evaluation of a TBA is feasible and could be effective in reducing neonatal mortality in remote rural settings.