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Empowering Leaders, Building Communities And Working Toward Global Health Equity

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In 2003, on a trip to Africa for the launch of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), I met a little girl whose mother brought her to the launch ceremony. I guessed she was three. Though she was too weak to stand at the event, I assumed she was like any other three year old -- curious, independent-spirited, and loving. I later found out this girl was actually closer to seven and tiny, not because she was young, but because she was born HIV-positive in a place where, at the time, access to basic healthcare wasn't an option. I never knew the fate of this little girl -- if she lived past the next year -- but I was struck by the overwhelmingly unfair fact that her life would have been drastically different had she been born a year later, or in a different zip code.

Seeing her, and meeting the hopeful, passionate health workers fighting to change her fate and the fate of others like her, inspired me to get involved in confronting the great inequities in global health.

Three years ago, a few committed friends and I launched Global Health Corps, a nonprofit that mobilizes a global community of emerging leaders to build the movement for health equality. Since 2009, I've had the opportunity to work with 126 incredible young people, from 9 countries, who are using their skills to change the status quo in global health. It is simply unfair and inhuman that in a world with today's technologies, capabilities and innovations, 1,000 women still die in pregnancy or childbirth each day, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and 99 percent of those deaths occur in developing countries. In a recent study from UNICEF, it has been reported that nearly 21,000 children under the age of five die from mainly preventable and treatable causes every day.

Midwives and health workers -- like those Global Health Corps works with -- are proving that these statistics can be lowered with continued and focused attention. According to WHO, the number of women dying due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth has decreased by 34 percent -- from 546,000 in 1990 to 358,000 in 2008. Millions of people in developing nations are alive today because they were born with the help of a trained midwife, vaccinated as children by a nurse, or because their families learned basic, healthy behaviors from a community health worker.

As an advisor to the White Ribbon Alliance and CARE's Mothers Day Every Day U.S. advocacy campaign for safe motherhood, I've added my voice with policy experts, writers, political leaders and others in the call for increased progress. We have come together to remind leaders that while our nation is currently facing a tough economic situation, a small fraction of the federal budget goes to global health programs, and they are having a very real impact on communities and saving lives.

The inequities are stark and the statistics are hard to read. But when a mother's life is saved, the resulting chain of events gives me hope. When a woman survives childbirth, her newborn baby is more likely to receive basic vaccinations and survive past the age of five, attend school and grow into a healthy, productive member of society as an adult. This impacts the long-term stability and economic growth of communities and nations, including our own.

Lives are being saved; I've seen it with my own eyes. We are in this together, and we have an obligation to raise our voices and work towards the day that a mother survives childbirth, not based on where she's from, but based on access to quality healthcare.

Barbara Bush is CEO and Co-Founder of Global Health Corps and is an Advisor to the White Ribbon Alliance and CARE's Mothers Day Every Day.