I talk a lot about the incredible opportunities we have to change the lives of women and children around the world. The main reason for my enthusiasm has been that we already have many of the key tools to save the lives of mothers and their newborns. Now, I have another reason for optimism -- new research proves that countries can integrate these tools into their existing health systems and save lives at a large scale without using new technology.
Last year I visited a research project in the rural community of Shivgarh in India, shown in this video tour of my trip:
By empowering the community with knowledge about lifesaving methods such as skin-to-skin care and immediate breastfeeding, the project cut the mortality rate for newborns in half in only 16 months without introducing any new technology. Not a single tool used in the Shivgarh project was developed in a scientific laboratory.
I was blown away by what I saw, but I still wanted to see proof that results like this could also happen outside of the confines of a controlled study environment.
Recently, The Lancet published a piece that proves that these same cost-effective, low-tech, community-based interventions I saw in Shivgarh can be effective as part of a country's regular health system. The government of Pakistan, in partnership with the Aga Khan University and Save the Children, trained its community-based, frontline public health workers, called Lady Health Workers, to provide newborn care counseling to the women they saw as part of their day-to-day work.
The results were amazing. Because women were given the knowledge to make better decisions about their health and their children's health, Pakistan saw a 15-percent decline in newborn mortality and a 21-percent reduction in the stillbirth rate in the region where the study was conducted. (Full disclosure: Both the Shivgarh and Save the Children studies received funding from the foundation.)
Researchers estimate that if they scaled this program up throughout Pakistan, where 57 percent of childhood deaths occur in the newborn period, it would save 100,000 children's lives per year. And if this can work in Pakistan -- a notoriously challenging place to work -- then it can work anywhere.