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Maternal, Newborn and Infant Mortality: Global Leaders Must Act

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"I have learned that it is mothers who keep families together -- indeed, who keep entire societies intact. Mothers are society's weavers... no woman should have to pay with her life for giving life," proclaimed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon earlier this year.

Paying the ultimate price of life to deliver the ultimate gift to humanity -- the promise and hope of a newborn child -- is both "shocking and shameful" in the words of British Prime Minister David Cameron. With 3,500 participants from nearly 150 countries attending the Women Deliver Conference earlier this month in Washington, "we have the world's attention," declared Melinda Gates in her keynote address. "Now, the world is changing."

Announcing a new $1.5-billion commitment from the Gates Foundation over the next five years to support maternal and child health, family planning, and nutrition programs in developing countries, Gates has sparked a firestorm to encourage industrialized G8 nations convening this week in Canada to renew their commitments to maternal and child health worldwide.

The number of global maternal deaths in 2008 was down 35 per cent from 1980. Deaths among children under five have decreased from 16 million in 1970, to 11.9 million in 1990, to 7.7 million in 2010.

Despite such progress, every day, nearly 1,000 women and 22,000 children under five will die in a world where most of these deaths are entirely preventable through proven, cost-effective interventions -- including improved maternal education, children's immunization initiatives, and access to contraception.

The Guttmacher Institute and the United Nations Population Fund estimate that ensuring access to modern contraception to those who don't have it could prevent up to a third of maternal deaths.

This is not a question of investing in research and development -- we know what works, and we have examples to prove it. Rather, this is a matter of execution, will and investment. For the woman and children in need, this is a matter of life and death.

Therefore, at this week's G8 and G20 summits, it is imperative we connect this global momentum with political courage, and financial investment with evidence-based strategies. In short, we simply must act now.

With the 2015 deadline of reaching the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) inching ever so close, we have little time to ramp up our efforts internationally.

Grounded in the fundamental principle of health as a human right, improving access to quality obstetric care -- including access to technologies and techniques to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission, which affect 400,000 babies born each year in Africa -- improves maternal health, reduces child mortality and advances women in society by promoting equal access to healthcare.

The financial commitment advocates seek is truly minimal, and would yield extraordinary returns for families, communities, societies and nations around the world. Doubling current spending on women's health -- on family planning and pregnancy-related care together -- from the current $12 billion to $24 billion annually would reduce maternal deaths by 70 per cent, cut newborn deaths by nearly half, and increase productivity and economic growth. In hard figures, doubling the global investment would save the lives of a quarter-million women, and the lives of nearly four million children.

In comparison to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on bank bailouts, and the hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually on military expenditures, we have no excuse not to find the $12 billion we need.

Every single one of us was given life by a woman; indeed, hundreds of thousands of our children are losing their mothers in the process. This is simply unacceptable. We know how to save these lives. At this G8 Summit, it's time we started to put an end to maternal, newborn and infant mortality.

Originally Published in the Ottawa Citizen

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