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Uneven Results in Bid to Halt Needless Mother and Child Deaths

Elizabeth Whitman

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 21 2011 (IPS) - Political, private sector and civil society leaders from around the world gathered here on Tuesday to recommit to a year-old initiative, Every Woman Every Child, which aims to prevent 16 million maternal and child deaths by 2015.

Though much progress has been made, they said, much more remains to be done.

Each day, over 21,000 children under the age of five around the world die, while 350,000 women die annually from complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Launched one year ago by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Every Woman Every Child is an effort to advance components of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, to which 200 organisations have pledged their commitment, by coordinating international and national actions across various sectors.

Those who spoke at Tuesday’s event not only shared stories of success related to their respective countries or organisations, but they also reiterated the call for greater resources and financial contributions.

“We have the knowledge, we have the expertise” to reduce mortality rates and improve women’s health, General Secretary of World YWCA Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda said at the event. “We know what works. We just need the resources.”

She called for countries to reallocate their spending to support health-related causes rather than, for instance, military pursuits, in a slight echo of Ban’s earlier warning that “political roadblocks litter the path ahead”.

Countries, many of them in the developing world, have already pledged to the cause an estimated 40 billion dollars for the next five years.

The Global Strategy, launched in April 2010, targets children and women’s health in order to bring countries closer to achieving Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 4 and 5 by their target year of 2015.

MDG 4 calls for a two-thirds reduction, based on 1990 data, in mortality for children under the age of five, while the fifth MDG is universal access to reproductive health and a 75-percent reduction in maternal mortality.

Ban said that the private sector would play a “central role” in helping countries reach these MDGs. Indeed, under Every Woman Every Child, public-private partnerships have thrived, with several new initiatives between the private sector and U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organisation, and between governments and private foundations.

Several developing countries have been hailed for their efforts to reduce infant, child, and maternal mortality rates. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh told those who attended the event that since 1990, Bangladesh had reduced infant mortality by 45 percent and maternal mortality by 66 percent.

Every Woman Every Child also seeks to avoid 33 million unwanted pregnancies and protect 120 children from pneumonia.

Maternal and child mortality rates have declined at an accelerated pace since the signing of the Millennium Declaration aimed at improving child and maternal health, said a new analysis by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington.

The report by the IHME, “Progress toward Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 on maternal and child mortality: an updated systematic analysis”, published in the leading British medical journal The Lancet, showed that since 2000, maternal mortality rates in 125 countries have declined at a faster pace.

In 1990, approximately 409,100 women died from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications, whereas in 2011 the number is estimated at 273,500.

Similarly, mortality rates of children young than five have declined faster since 2000 than in the past 11 years than they did the decade prior, from 11.6 million deaths in 1990 to 7.2 this year. The data indicates that efforts to decrease maternal and child deaths through education and health initiatives are succeeding.

Nevertheless, the initiatives have not ensured that countries will be on track to meet MDGs 4 and 5 by 2015, the report said. Though 31 developing countries will achieve MDG 4 and 13 developing countries MDG 5, only nine will achieve both. They are China, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Maldives, Mongolia, Peru, Syria and Tunisia.

Haidong Wang, assistant professor of global health at IHME and co- author of the report, commended the work of U.N. agencies, telling IPS that they “have played an important leadership role in improving child mortality and maternal mortality”.

Efforts in particular to fulfill the MDGs “have been a huge boon for public health” in developing countries, he said, and have had a significant impact child and female health there.

“Governments within those lower income countries have also, for the most part, increased their own spending on health,” Wang said. Those changes contributed to major improvements.

Still, education was “one of the biggest factors”, said Wang. “Half the reduction in child mortality can be tied to the education of young women. With more schooling, they make better choices about their own health and about the health of their families,” he explained.

Nevertheless, despite efforts on the part of the U.N. and individual countries, said Wang, “We need to acknowledge the fact that most countries are not on track to achieve either MDG goal.”

“In order to continue reducing child and maternal mortality to the targeted levels,” he concluded, “We must build on what has been working the past two decades.”

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