05/24/2012 07:19 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2012

Global Motherhood: What Lies Ahead For The Maternal Health Community

Last week, the maternal health community received some positive news. According to a new report released by the World Health Organization, the number of women who died from pregnancy and childbirth complications dropped to 287,000 in 2010 -- a steep decline from the 358,000 maternal deaths reported in 2008. This progress is a testament to the committed actions of the maternal health community. However, these latest statistics also point to the fact that much work lies ahead. The world is still far off track to meet UN Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG 5), which calls for a 75 percent reduction in the maternal mortality rate by 2015.

As we pause to reflect on this milestone, I'm reminded that in fact, there have been many milestones since 2007, the halfway point to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The issue has gained new traction amongst policy makers and the public alike. One of the most exciting aspects about this growing momentum has been seeing so many organizations and individuals coming together to address one of the more solvable global health challenges that we have known. By inviting participation from so many different sectors, we are seeing these figures drop that much faster than any of us dreamed possible. 

At Every Mother Counts, we think about all kinds of companies and the individuals who interface with them quite a lot. In fact, we are working closely with many partners to see our mission to engage new audiences around the challenges and solutions. Some of these entities have set themselves apart with their knowledge of and commitment to reducing maternal mortality. I recently had the chance to sit down with Dr. Naveen Rao of Merck, who leads the Merck for Mothers initiative, while we were together at the GBC Health conference in New York last week to discuss what the latest findings mean for the maternal health community.

Christy: Naveen, welcome to the Global Motherhood section of The Huffington Post. I have been following Merck for Mothers since it was announced at the UN last year, and we are thrilled to have you join the conversation.

Naveen: Thank you, Christy. Merck appreciates the opportunity to contribute and join the global effort to save women's lives during pregnancy and childbirth.

Christy: So what are your thoughts on the new WHO data?

Naveen: These latest figures are clear progress in the fight to save women's lives and everyone who worked so tirelessly should be applauded for this wonderful achievement. However, I say that with a major caveat: this reduction in maternal mortality is still not swift enough. As the WHO report states, maternal mortality has decreased by 3.1 percent per year since 1990; that is far below the 5.5 percent annual decline needed to reach MDG 5. The findings demonstrate that we know what works and these efforts are clearly having an impact -- which is affirming. Now, we must accelerate this momentum so we can close the gap as rapidly as possible. To do so, we need to think more creatively about how multiple sectors can work together to leverage our respective strengths.

Christy: Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Naveen: As we all know, maternal mortality is a complex issue that requires multifaceted solutions. Put simply, no one sector can tackle it alone. What we need is a more concerted effort among government, the business community and civil society -- one that harnesses the unique capabilities of each sector to address this issue head on. This of course aligns with the vision outlined in the UN Secretary-General's Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health.

Christy: I'm glad you mentioned the multi-sector approach. When I launched Every Mother Counts, it was with the hope that we could work closely with the existing non-governmental organizations as well as with governments and businesses to mobilize the public around the need to prevent women from dying during pregnancy and childbirth. After all, approximately 90 percent of maternal deaths are preventable. There aren't many issues you can say that about.

Naveen: Exactly. And as a physician, that is one of the things that drew me to the issue, and it is one of the main reasons why Merck feels it can make a difference.

Christy: Tell me a bit more about Merck for Mothers and why Merck has decided to take on this issue.

Naveen: Maternal mortality is one of the oldest global health crises in the world, and as you well know, it is one that continues to touch everyone -- no geography is spared. We at Merck saw this issue as one where we could make a significant impact. We have committed our human and financial resources, research skills, business expertise and capacity for innovation as part of a 10-year initiative called Merck for Mothers. We have three strategies to help the world reach MDG 5: 1) making sure new, innovative maternal health technologies get into the hands of health providers as quickly as possible; 2) increasing women's access to life-saving solutions, especially in countries with a high burden of maternal deaths; and 3) building support among policymakers and the public alike so we can more rapidly move the needle on reducing maternal mortality.

Christy: This is obviously an issue that touches both of us as individuals and our organizations deeply. I truly believe that it will touch anyone who takes the time to consider the facts. It's a very personal and relatable issue. After all, any woman can have a complication -- the difference really is whether she has access to life saving care or not. I believe all of us must rally around this as a human rights injustice. But as you've pointed out, in addition to those factors, there are other factors that business leaders and governments can and should contribute that address other challenges.

Naveen: It is crucial that governments view maternal mortality not only as a health or human rights issue, but also as an important investment for their country. I recently learned that pregnancy- and childbirth-related deaths of women and newborns are estimated to cost the world at least US $15 billion in lost productivity every year. It is only logical that we do all that we can to ensure that women are healthy, not just for their own sake, but for the longstanding health and well-being of their families as well. After all, healthy women mean healthy families, healthy families mean healthy communities, and healthy communities mean healthy nations -- physically and economically.

Christy: This business-minded approach has become critical to bringing a new type of energy to the movement. We believe that in our role as advocates we must balance this approach with the human stories of those most impacted by these efforts. We can't lose sight of the fact that every single one of these statistics is an individual, a mother, a friend, a sister... and with every loss, an entire family is left to pick up the pieces. This issue can greatly benefit from all types of engagement and skills.

Naveen: That is exactly why non-government organizations, like Every Mother Counts, are crucial to this collective effort. Having recently spent time at health facilities and clinics in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, I have seen the faces affected by maternal mortality. I have heard the voices of children left motherless by this global tragedy. These are experiences one never forgets. While the latest numbers released last week are indeed encouraging, it is imperative that we regard them not as an excuse to pat ourselves on the back, but as a catalyst for even more energy, collaboration and action.

Christy: That is certainly a powerful message. Thank you, Naveen, for your unique and insightful perspective. I look forward to working together in the weeks, months and years to come!

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