Opinion: 4 sustainable solutions to save millions of mothers and children

A health extension worker counselling a mother with her newborn. Photo by: ©UNICEF Ethiopia / 2014 / Tsegaye / CC BY-NC-ND

Every day, approximately 830 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth; 99% of these deaths occur in resource-limited countries. In addition, 15,000 children under five years old die each day around the world from treatable conditions, such as pneumonia and diarrhea.

Although these numbers are unacceptable, the world has witnessed great progress in the fight to bring the number of these deaths to zero.

Since 1990, the annual number of deaths of children under the age of five has been cut in half. This has largely been accomplished by expanding access to life-saving maternal and child health solutions, including trained health care workers, clean birthing practices, vaccines, nutritional supplements, and handwashing with soap. These solutions are common sense, proven, and cost-effective.

Despite success in reducing mortality rates, the world’s most vulnerable, hard-to-reach women and children continue to face great barriers to accessing basic health services. Pregnant women and mothers such as Mariama in Sierra Leone often cannot go to a health clinic because they are too far away.

Mariama gave birth to her baby in dangerous — and unfair — circumstances. She woke up in the middle of the night with labor pains and tried to walk to a clinic. But with neither a light nor medical tools, Mariama delivered her baby on the side of the road in a rural area and returned home that night with the umbilical cord still attached. The next morning, she was able to travel to a health post, and her baby thankfully survived.

While stories such as Mariama’s are all too common, we also know progress is possible. Here are four solutions that would save millions of lives of vulnerable mothers and children around the world.

1. Partnerships between nations

In Tanzania, where Seed Global Health has worked in partnership with the Peace Corps, for the past five years; smart investments show lives can be saved — for example, focusing on training and educating a rising generation of health professionals, such as doctor, Aliasgar Khaki.

Armed with protocols and knowledge, Khaki found he could save newborn lives. He now helps organize trainings around the country of 44 million to help reduce further preventable infant deaths and ensure others carry the same knowledge.

Partnerships such as these in Tanzania are just one example of how United States leadership has contributed significantly to the growing success in reducing maternal and child mortality around the world. At a time of shifting priorities, the U.S.’ valuable role in global health must be sustained, and we must continue to work closely with our partners to facilitate lasting solutions that provide countries in need with a pathway to self-reliance. This approach will ensure we can reach every last mother and child around the world and help them not only survive, but thrive.

2. The Reach Every Mother and Child Act

A key opportunity in maintaining U.S.’ leadership is the support of the Reach Every Mother and Child Act, bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives that emphasizes access to simple, low-cost solutions, such as trained community health workers and basic medications. The legislation currently has more than 25 cosponsors in the Senate and 160 in the House. We hope Congress acts swiftly to pass this critical legislation so we can continue to accelerate progress to save lives. We have come so far already.

3. Commitment from USAID

As heads of organizations that work to strengthen global health, we are hopeful about the U.S. Agency for International Development’s work to champion these efforts, demonstrating continued support for this longstanding bipartisan cause. This month, USAID released a new report, Journey to Self-Reliance, on its progress reducing preventable child and maternal deaths. Factoring prominently in the report, are efforts to ensure that the U.S. works hand-in-hand with partner countries to not only provide access to life-saving interventions, such as routine immunizations or dietary supplements, but also to build the capacity of countries receiving assistance to provide and finance more and better care on their own in future.

4. Innovative financing mechanisms

One such example of this work is USAID’s new Utkrisht impact bond — a financing arrangement where the U.S. government pays for a program after it has delivered the intended results — for India. This is the world’s first development impact bond targeting maternal and newborn health.

According to UNICEF, 44,000 women in India die each year from preventable pregnancy-related causes. The largest and most ambitious of its kind, this development impact bond is expected to provide funding for up to 600,000 pregnant women in Rajasthan, India to gain access to improved health care. The bond has the potential to save the lives of 10,000 mothers and children, especially where mothers live in slums and have few places to access quality health care.

The development impact bond uses an initial private investment to ensure hundreds of health care facilities meet quality standards, to train staff, and to expand access to life-saving medicine and medical tools. The local government will be able to scale up this lifesaving work and carry it forward in the future.

This innovative financing mechanism not only encourages positive results — it’s an accountability tool to ensure American tax dollars are used wisely and effectively, which should satisfy critics of global health. Most importantly, it helps save lives.

Investing in global health is in everyone’s interest. Beyond reducing morbidity and mortality, improvements in health will strengthen economic growth, development, and even security. Effective foreign assistance tools such as the novel development impact bonds and maternal and child health programs are an essential contribution to these goals.

We urge Congress to continue the U.S’ legacy of strong leadership in global health — with swift passage of the Reach Every Mother and Child Act to ensure continued emphasis on maternal and child survival — and to demonstrate the power of bipartisan understanding and support of smart foreign health aid.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Kris Perry

    Kris Perry became the president of Save the Children Action Network in February 2018. Formerly the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, Kris understands that the future lies in the health and wellbeing of children. She has dedicated her career to bringing resources and support to parents, caregivers, and early learning workforce professionals to ensure children grow up healthy and ready to succeed. She received her bachelor of arts degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a master's in social work from San Francisco State University.
  • Vanessa Kerry

    Vanessa Kerry is the co-founder and CEO of Seed Global Health, a global NGO that partners with governments to strengthen human resources for health in countries with shortages of physicians, nurses, and midwives. She is also a critical care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital where she has served on the frontlines of COVID-19 response.