Mothers in Afghanistan Face Dangers Greater than War

05/10/2010 03:57 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On Mother's Day, Americans recognized the amazing women whose dedication has shaped our families and lives. But let's not forget to honor mothers worldwide, who also deserve our thanks. They nurture the future by offering children a fundamental security that no military could ever match.

Yet in some parts of the world, motherhood is more dangerous than war. Consider Afghanistan, where women have a 1 in 8 lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes.

Afghan mothers also suffer given the dismal odds their children face. One quarter of babies never reach their fifth birthday. In any given week, more than 6,000 Afghan children may die, mostly from easily preventable and treatable causes like pneumonia, diarrhea, and birth complications.

This weekly death toll of children matches all Afghan civilian deaths from armed conflict in the last three years - even as rising Taliban attacks spurred new highs.

These statistics may be more related than you'd think. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence has asserted that the Afghan government's inability to provide basic health services for children and expectant mothers has undermined its credibility and boosted support for the Taliban.

Because extremists often prey on the discontent of marginalized communities, countries with higher child and maternal mortality rates may be more vulnerable to political upheaval. That's a point Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made, but it's not the only compelling reason to address child and maternal deaths.

Children and pregnant women are dying needlessly. Americans know it's wrong to let these deaths continue when we know how to prevent them.

The tools to eliminate most child and maternal deaths are well-known, proven, and often very low-cost. If we put them to work, we could prevent an estimated two thirds of 8.8 million annual child deaths and three quarters of 343,000 maternal deaths.

Some very poor countries have already made phenomenal progress thanks to a combination of foreign aid, national will, and sustainable strategies for getting basic health care to poor mothers and their children.

The most effective solutions are not high tech. Exclusive breastfeeding, micronutrients, antibiotics, antimalarials, vaccines, oral-rehydration therapy, and utilizing ready-to-use foods could save millions of children a year. Skilled attendance at birth and basic prenatal and postnatal care could prevent most maternal deaths.

Save the Children's new State of the World's Mothers report points out that countries suffering the most child and maternal deaths also have the greatest health care provider shortages. Yet, the report also illustrates that we need not confront the extreme challenge of producing huge numbers of doctors to meet the estimated global shortfall of 4.3 million health care professionals.

Community health workers with just months of training can deliver key interventions that save children's lives, and trained midwives can make childbirth far safer.

Very poor countries like Bangladesh and Nepal have become leaders in reducing child deaths in great part by drawing on targeted aid to build ranks of female frontline health care workers. These women not only have the low-cost tools to save lives, but they also are welcomed by communities where cultural barriers keep women from accessing male health care providers.

Even the world's most dangerous place to be a mother, Afghanistan, has made some progress through limited initiatives to train midwives. Such programs deserve our support because the payoff is a more stable, secure, and humane world for all of us.

The good news is momentum for global action is running high. At both the G8 summit in June and the Millennium Development Goals summit in September, hosts Canada and the United Nations plan to push world leaders for new commitments on maternal and child health. The Obama administration has already expressed welcome support.

All Americans can keep the ball rolling by supporting increased funding from Congress and pending legislation (The Global Child Survival Act in the Senate, and The Newborn, Child, and Mother Survival Act in the House). By coordinating new efforts to fund and promote maternal, newborn and child health, Congress, President Obama and world leaders can help save the lives of millions of moms and kids. That's a Mother's Day gift that will bloom for years to come.

U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, D-Conn., author of the Global Child Survival Act, serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D. is a former two-term Republican Senator from Tennessee who is chairman of Save the Children's Survive to 5 Campaign.