Giving babies a fighting chance Meet Dr. Ashraf in Pakistan

39-year-old Dr. Ashraf is a child specialist in Skardu, a city located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of northern Pakistan.

Dr. Ashraf spent his childhood in a rural community with few doctors and facilities nearby. He grew up wanting to become a doctor.

“When I was little, I was always sick but there were no doctors in my village back then. Pharmacists and nurses used to work as doctors,” said Dr. Ashraf. “Seeing people in pain made me want to become a doctor to serve people.”

An avid lover of biology and physics throughout his childhood, Dr. Ashraf moved to Karachi to study medicine.

“When I returned [to Gilgit-Baltistan] after my studies, there were only three child specialists in Baltistan. Now, there are ten in my department.”

Neonatal mortality remains persistently high in Pakistan, with almost 84 percent of under-five child deaths occurring in the first year of life, with two-thirds of those deaths occurring in the first 28 days (UNICEF). This means that newborn care is vital to preventing deaths and providing quality, foundational care.

At the Skardu Regional Hospital, where Dr. Ashraf works, almost 30 babies are born every day. A year ago, there were no specialized facilities for newborns, meaning that newborns were cared for in the same wards as other children.

“We had a lack of incubators, no separate set-up… The issues of newborns and grown children are totally different, so we had many issues of care,” recounts Dr. Ashraf.

Through support from Canada, Dr. Ashraf and his staff attended training at the Aga Khan Hospital in Karachi. For many on Dr. Ashraf’s team, this was their first time training in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) facility, and they learned skills like feeding, dripping, administering antibiotics, and how to use newborn incubators.

Dr. Ashraf at the NICU ward at the Skardu Regional Hospital.

After attending the training, Dr. Ashraf worked with local government, health departments, and hospital administration to open the NICU at the Skardu Regional Hospital. Since the opening of the NICU, mortality rates for newborns have declined at the hospital.

“In the first month and a half [of the NICU opening], there were no [newborn] mortalities. Newborns have a place to get the care they should. We have a separate, dedicated doctor and staff.”

Low birth weight – defined by the World Health Organization as weight at birth under 2,500 grams – is closely associated with neonatal mortality and poor health outcomes. With the NICU facilities and dedicated team of doctors, more and more babies born at the Skardu Regional Hospital are surviving.

Dr. Ashraf recalls the time when a 600-gram baby was born in his hospital. “We have no record of anyone that underweight ever being born survive and grow up. We have even saved that baby.”

Dr. Ashraf hopes to continue improving the quality of care for newborns in Pakistan. He and his team are now taking the skills and knowledge gained through training to other hospitals in the region, so that more babies will get the support they need to survive and thrive.

“I want [everyone] to learn the way I have learned, so that we can improve the healthcare system,” says Dr. Ashraf.

This story is part of the Foundations for Health and Empowerment (F4HE) program. F4HE aims to improve the health and wellbeing, and enhance the equitable development and empowerment, of women, girls, their families, and their communities.