THE BLOG
02/14/2013 01:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 16, 2013

Put Some PEPFAR Energy Behind Maternal Health

Like so many of you, I sat up watching the State of the Union address last night. We all had our scorecards - the things we wanted to hear about laced in among the things we were pleasantly surprised to hear about. Personally, I think the strong language on climate issues, the commitment to equal pay for women and the emotional plea on gun control were all highlights. The overriding thought I had as I watched last night was a memory to 10 years ago. In 2003, I wasn't watching my twitter screen. Instead, I was in the office, sitting around a pizza box with my colleagues at what then was called DATA (and now has become the ONE Campaign).

That was the night President Bush announced the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). When the announcement landed in that speech it shocked the pants off most people even "in the know" in the development world and ushered in a whole new perspective on global health and what could get done. In the years before PEPFAR, AIDS was seen as one of those intractable, scary plagues we just had to watch as it devastated many parts of the world. But that night, we set out on a path to overcome that fear and take action. I remember the entrepreneurial spirit of the speech and the days that followed. Instead of worrying about there not being the infrastructure needed I recall the President saying 'We'll deliver the drugs by motorcycle if we have to.' Ten years later, we're talking about an AIDS-free generation--what we couldn't have even dreamed of back then.

Mark Dybul sat on the inside and played a key role in shaping PEPFAR. I used to lobby with him and then we became friends. He would later become the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and direct the PEPFAR effort. Even he was surprised. I emailed Mark this morning to ask what he remembered about that night. Mark had been in on the PEPFAR negotiations and said, "Even though I knew he was going to say something and even knew what it was he was going to announce I was still stunned to hear President Bush say the words. I remember having mixed feelings of absolute joy mixed with an undercurrent of "holy sh--, now we actually have to do this!"

This is not to oversimplify the scene. One alone didn't get the job done, but it sparked an emergency response that has since saved millions of lives.

I was lucky enough to get to work on that response--to get caught up in that momentum and feeling of "we'll all do whatever it takes." I was lucky to witness one of the most incredible displays of bipartisan partnership I've ever seen. Things are different today. Budgets are tighter. Our global challenges are taking shape in ways we couldn't even imagine then. But I like to remember that night 10 years ago because in the blink of an eye, the seemingly impossible became a mandate and global health took center stage. All of a sudden, America got it that global health is critical to all of us.

Last night's speech was full of sparks and the nod to working towards an AIDS-free generation especially exciting. But I found myself wishing the country, our government and the global community would find that same spirit again, but this time dedicated to maternal health. Not just because of the hundreds of thousands of women who lose their lives each year to preventable pregnancy and childbirth-related conditions, but also because of all the children they leave behind and because of the women who are left debilitated with childbirth injuries who can no longer contribute to their families' economic wellbeing. We need that spark, that spirit once again because the kids in these families are less likely to be educated, to stay healthy and to break the vicious cycles of poverty their own mothers were locked into. And we need that spark again because we CAN change all of this - but until you have that ambitious vision, it's tough to get inspired.

Instead of allowing maternal mortality to be an intractable issue, we need to step up and put the same emergency response energy into it. Every Mother Counts is excited to be a founding partner of a new effort called Saving Mothers, Giving Life, which is doing just that. It's going into PEPFAR countries and building on that incredible infrastructure that has so effectively reached AIDS patients, and aiming to reduce maternal deaths by up to 50%. That's the kind of audacious goal setting that we need, but we need the same bipartisan energy and determination to turn an ambitious concept into reality.

So what can we do about it? Check out savingmothersgivinglife.org to learn more about this new effort and then join me at Every Mother Counts to light a fire in our government officials to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother in the world. Start by signing our petition asking our female Senators and Congresswomen to make women's health a priority. There's a lot to be done. But what we learned 10 years ago is that sometimes all we need is a little push.