Our week in Kuala Lumpur is almost over and we’ve had an amazingly busy and informative week of meetings, briefings and field visits. Whether visiting with the Malaysian government’s ministry of health, touring government facilities, sharing thoughts with one of the 4,000 delegates from around the world, or participating in roundtable discussions with experts in the field, I have been immersed in the issue and focus of the conference.
In 2000, all UN Member States committed to eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aim to significantly reduce extreme poverty and disease, ensure environmental sustainability, and enhance international coordination around development by 2015. That means that 189 countries committed to ending extreme poverty worldwide through the achievement of these MDG’s. The MDGs are the FIRST and ONLY international framework for improving the human condition of the world’s poor.
MDG 5 — Improve Maternal Health — set a target of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015. And that has been one of the key focal points of this conference. Every year, between 350,000 – 500,000 girls and women die from pregnancy-related causes.
Medical solutions exist, but increased government attention is needed to implement policies to improve the supply of and demand for services that will help. While the numbers of deaths are decreasing, the progress is not enough or fast enough to meet the MDG goal by 2015. Almost all maternal deaths occur in developing countries; especially vulnerable are poor women. In fact, maternal mortality represents one of the greatest health disparities between rich and poor and between the rich and poor populations within every country.
Interestingly enough, providing the essential services needed to make significant improvements in maternal health are estimated to cost less than $1.50 per person in the 75 countries where 95% of maternal mortality occurs. The great majority of maternal and newborn deaths can be prevented through simple, cost-effective measures.
For instance, using a country closer to home, in Haiti, the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the Western Hemisphere with 350 deaths per 100,000 live births. In comparison, the rate in the U.S. is 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births and Afghanistan’s rate was 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births (2002). Several programs in Haiti have trained over 700 traditional birth attendants to assist with child birth since only 37% of all births in Haiti take place in a health facility.
Thanks to these attendants, pregnant women in Haiti have increased access to trained assistants who assist with safe deliveries. Identifying signs of high-risk pregnancies, and referring at-risk pregnant women to health facilities for care. In Afghanistan, thanks to skilled birth attendants and access to education about pregnancy, the maternal mortality rates went from 1,600 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2002 to 327 deaths in 2010.
Achieving MDG 5 is not only an important goal by itself, it is also central to the achievement of the other MDGs: reducing poverty, reducing child mortality, stopping HIV and AIDS, providing education, promoting gender equality, ensuring adequate food, and promoting a healthy environment.
The U.S. is a leader in funding these programs, but this is not just a U.S. government problem. It’s one that will take government, in partnership with other donors, governments, academia, the private sector, religious institutions, civil society and individual advocates.
Failure to invest in the maternal health of women in developing countries is a missed opportunity for development in those countries that need critical development gains the most.l