The bountiful game: Ewan McGregor on the fragile existence of babies who owe their lives to Soccer Aid and Unicef in India

Ewan MacGregor on a visit to UNICEF Special Care Newborn Unit in Vaishali, Bihar. Picture: Byrajiv Kumar
Ewan MacGregor on a visit to UNICEF Special Care Newborn Unit in Vaishali, Bihar. Picture: Byrajiv Kumar
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WRITING exclusively for Scotland on Sunday, Ewan McGregor recounts an emotional visit to a pioneering unit saving tiny lives in one of the poorest parts of India

IT WAS my first trip to India with Unicef. In fact, it was my first trip to India at all. I had come to the city of Patna in the western state of Bihar to make a short film for Soccer Aid, and I felt I had a good idea of what to expect. I knew people who had travelled in India and they had said, amongst other things, that it was completely frantic.

When I arrived in Patna it was exactly that. Unbelievable, a real assault on the senses. Driving to the hotel from the airport it was a mayhem of motorbikes and animals and cars and rickshaws.

I expected to be overwhelmed by the poverty and I was. It is difficult to comprehend, seeing people living and sleeping on the streets everywhere you look. As we were driving through the city I saw children everywhere, playing in places that children should not be playing. Places covered in rubbish and faeces. It made me realise how incredibly difficult these children’s lives are.

I was in Patna to see Unicef’s work helping to tackle the high rate of newborn mortality in India’s second-poorest state. Nearly half of the population live below the poverty line in Bihar, which means they survive on less than $1 a day. Because of this, when mums-to-be are carrying their babies they struggle to find enough food to keep themselves and their unborn baby healthy. Often, that means babies are born tiny, weak and struggling to survive.

Of the one in 20 babies who die before their first birthday, more than half do so in their first 28 days of life. Malnutrition in pregnant women is a major cause of this high rate of newborn mortality, as it causes babies to be born too early and dangerously small, which leaves them fighting for their lives.

The first stop on our trip was a newborn special care unit in Vaishali, which is a hectic town an hour’s drive away from Patna. The centre was set up by Unicef in 2008 to provide life-saving specialist care for these desperately ill newborn babies, after recognising that the soaring numbers of babies dying in their first 28 days of life had to be tackled.

That’s the way Unicef works in India. It identifies what the problem is, what is missing, then sets up something and shows the government how well it has worked so they can take over responsibility and replicate it across the state and country. The government has now set up four more specialist care units just like the one in Vaishali in other parts of Bihar because of overwhelming demand. It is a collaborative way of working that shows how effective and vital organisations like Unicef can be, even though India is less poor than it once was.

The unit I was visiting was at the end of a short, traffic-choked lane in the centre of the town. I had expected the whole place to be filled with the noises of babies crying, but as soon as we stepped inside I was taken aback by the silence. All the babies were so fragile that their tiny bodies didn’t have the energy to make any noise.

But the centre was brilliant. It had beds for 12 babies; six beds for those who had been born in the hospital that the newborn centre was attached to, and six beds for babies born at a local health centre or at home, still a common practice in much of rural India.

The babies were just tiny. So tiny. Babies who wouldn’t stand a chance at life if this centre hadn’t been there. I couldn’t help but be really impressed. Most of them had little woolly hats on their heads, to keep them warm.

I met one mum, Sangeeta, whose baby was only seven days old. He was born weighing just 1∫lbs. Like all the mums waiting for news, she had to wait outside the centre in a room that looks like a bus shelter, swarming with flies. She told me she had to rely on her father and husband to bring her food as she was too scared to leave the waiting room in case the worst happened.

The day before I was there was the first time she had been able to see her baby since he had been rushed to the centre a week ago. He was finally well enough for her to breastfeed him. The risk of infection from mothers, or from contact with anyone other than sterilised doctors is really high, so time between mums and their babies has to be kept to a minimum.

When I asked Sangeeta how her baby was doing she said she was less scared as she knew he was in a good place. She had seen an improvement in him, but she was too frightened and shy to talk to the doctors to find out more. All the women I met at the centre said the same thing to me. They just sit outside waiting, sometimes for up to three or four weeks, not knowing if their baby is going to live or die. It’s terrible.

Some babies don’t make it. That’s what happened for one mum I met in the centre, Musken. She was barely older than a child herself, but she had waited four weeks: 28 long days and nights, without leaving that bus shelter of a waiting room to find out if her baby Munna would survive, only for him to finally lose his struggle for life.

It shouldn’t be like that. No baby should lose their life in that way. But it does show why the care the centre provides is so desperately needed, so more vulnerable babies like Munna have a chance at life.

And there is hope. The doctor was telling me about the survival rate in the centre and I asked him what it was before it was there. He just shook his head at me as if that was a stupid question, because none of them would have survived. Now 80 per cent make it.

The mums and babies who use the centre are mostly from the lowest Indian caste, the Dailats. Without the free treatment the place provides, those mums and their babies would have no hope. This centre is their only chance at life.

I saw proof of that when I went to the home of Daulat and her nine-month-old twins, Priyashen and Avishan. When they were born they weighed less than two pounds each. Tiny, tiny babies. Daulat hadn’t seen a doctor during her pregnancy, and like all the mums I met, her daily diet was just one meal of rice and chapatti. She didn’t even know she was having twins until two babies came out when she gave birth at home.

Her house was a series of dirt floors and brick walls. She had the babies on the dirty floor of the storeroom. It was the grandmother who noticed something was wrong as soon as they were born – so they took a tuk tuk, one of those Indian open-air taxis, to the local hospital before being sent to the care unit.

They were there for 17 days. I asked Daulat what that hour’s ride to the centre was like for her, and she said simply that she was terrified. She told me how happy she had been to have her babies, but that as soon as they were born she didn’t know if they were going to survive. She said they were so small that she could hold them in the palm of her hand. She grabbed my hand and pointed to it, as if to reinforce how small.

The twins, when I met them, were the same age as my own little girl. She is a lovely, big healthy baby, but when I picked up Avishan and Priyashen they felt so small in comparison.

Despite being small even now though, they are happy, healthy babies born into a family that loves them. It could have been so different.

To celebrate their survival their dad bought a cow so the family could feed them properly. “They are my children and I love them,” Daulat tells me several times. Life is difficult for her and her family she says, because they don’t have much, but she loves her babies and wants to provide for them.

I will never forget the babies I met during my time there. I will never forget seeing how tiny they were, and what a sorrowful sight it was seeing them lying on their own in the bed under the heat lamps. They have no human contact.

But that’s what Soccer Aid is about. It’s about donating just £5 which could help make sure a baby like Munna, Avishan or Priyashen, born anywhere in the world, can survive.

They are amazingly resilient little people, the babies and children I meet on my Unicef trips. Those I met in India were no different. Sadly I can’t take part in the game at Old Trafford next Sunday, but there will be a good turnout from us Scots. I’ll be backing Kenny Dalglish and his team. Gordon Ramsay and James McAvoy are playing for him and the ‘Rest of the World’, against the English team.

Make sure you tune in too – and please, make a donation and help a child survive.

• ITV1’s Soccer Aid match will be shown live from 6pm on Sunday 27 May. For tickets, or to donate to Unicef, visit www.itv.com/socceraid. All donations to Soccer Aid will be matched pound for pound by the UK Government.