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Forget the Magic Bullets: We Can Save Millions of Lives With Basic First Steps

04/28/2014 10:35 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2014

As often happens, we recently gained a great nugget of wisdom from someone much younger than us.

We were deliberating with a new friend over a range of global issues, feeling generally overwhelmed with the weight of them all. As our collective brainstorming for solutions hit another impasse, there was a synchronized sigh and a moment of helpless silence. Then she perked up.

"These are all problems that nobody knows how to fix," she thought aloud. "But there are other things we do know how to fix, so why don't we just start there?"

That idea led to a far more hopeful conversation about global health -- in particular preventing childhood deaths -- where simple solutions make a huge difference. We may not know how to solve climate change, nuclear proliferation or violent conflicts in Ukraine or central Africa. But we do know the right mix of salt and sugar to save lives through rehydration. We know that washing hands and boiling water help fend off dysentery. We know that safe birthing environments, breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact help prevent infant deaths, and that bed nets reduce the spread of malaria.

For a fraction of the time and resources we spend seeking magic bullets to massive challenges, we can start on problems we know how to solve.

Bill Gates was recently asked what his favorite image is -- what best represents why he gives so much of his wealth and time to global philanthropy? Sitting in the audience, we wondered how he would respond. Ever the numbers nerd, Gates showed a line graph. It was a single, red, downward line from 20 million in 1960, to six million in 2012--the number of children under five who die each year. "I really like this graph," he smiled, arguing that with very low-cost interventions like vaccinations, well-planned and delivered, "we can perform a miracle."

Gates is also an astute businessman, and dollar for dollar, he knows the best investment in global health is in prevention. The World Health Organization estimates that improving water, sanitation and hygiene would cut almost one tenth off the global disease burden -- annually saving the lives of over two million children and preventing over two billion dangerous infections. Investing U.S. $11.3 billion in the required interventions would save U.S. $7 billion in global health care costs and pay back U.S. $77 billion more in global productivity -- dreamy numbers for any venture capitalist.

For the rest of us, it's a practical path to a healthier and happier world. More than half of early child deaths are caused by illnesses that are simply and affordably prevented or treated. The top four are pneumonia, birth complications, diarrhea and malaria, with malnutrition as a contributing factor in 45 percent of all cases. These illnesses -- in children and adults -- hold people back from going to school, performing household chores, contributing to their family income and to their economies. They hold back whole communities and countries by gutting their social and human capital. Conversely, there is opportunity to reverse this cycle of illness and poverty into a cycle of health, education, employment and economic development.

The answers aren't easy. The five dollars needed for a malaria-preventing bed net may be unaffordable for subsistence farm families, and the closest medical clinic may be too far away to access vaccinations and other treatments. Basic sanitation can be a challenge for residents of urban slums, and even boiling water is difficult with no electrical power.

But the answers exist. Providing micro-loans for family-based businesses can generate alternative family income to help pay for basic health interventions like bed nets. Implementing modern, drought-resistant agricultural techniques bolsters good nutrition. Building reliable access to safe drinking water prevents numerous illnesses and saves hours walking to faraway sources, removing a key barrier to girls' education. Building basic medical clinics in rural communities improves access to vaccinations, treatments and maternal and newborn care.

Tackling issues of basic preventive health yields impressive results. Malaria interventions from 2000 to 2012 saved an estimated 3.3 million lives -- 90 percent of which are children under five. Vaccines save another 2.5 million lives every year and maternal mortality has dropped by 45 percent since 1990 in developing regions. More importantly, each intervention saves or improves the life of one person. That, to us, is argument enough.

There is still much to do -- millions of lives to save and people to make healthy. Bill Gates believes his beloved downward red line can dip below "well below a million" in his lifetime, and we agree. These "miracles" are within our current abilities. So let's keep searching for magic bullets to our world's biggest problems, but let's also continue taking the easy steps we already know how to take, and make a difference today.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit www.weday.com.

6 Simple Ways to Save Millions of Lives