Accelerating Progress for Maternal Health

By: Mariko Rasmussen, Program Assistant for Women Deliver; originally posted at the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases blog, End the Neglect

I am blessed to live in a part of the world where I am more likely to view a woman dying in childbirth as a thematic element to a piece of fiction than to see it happen in my own family or have it happen to myself. Similarly, when I think of a three-foot worm growing under a person’s skin, it sounds like a horror movie or nightmare rather than a diagnosis. But in many places, maternal mortality and neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), like guinea worm, continue to ravage communities, especially thriving in impoverished settings. NTDs are a group of disabling, disfiguring, and deadly diseases affecting more than 1.4 billion people worldwide living on less than $1.25 a day. Often, women and children carry much of the NTD burden, and NTDs can directly impact maternal mortality rates, such as hookworm’s contribution to anemia in pregnant women. This disparity between rich and poor is unacceptable – health is a human right.

There are many common factors connecting maternal mortality and neglected tropical diseases, highlighting the need for a comprehensive, integrated approach to maternal health. Both concentrate in settings of extreme poverty, in urban slums and rural villages, perpetuated by poor standards of living and hygiene. They also have faced many of the same barriers – such as inadequate security and funding, lack of political will, and need for behavioral change.

 This year has seen an increase in attention and momentum around maternal health. President Barack Obama named neglected tropical diseases and maternal and child mortality as two of the four pillars of the Global Health Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged 1.5 billion dollars to improve maternal health, the G8/G20 focused on maternal health, the Executive Council of the African Union (AU) extended the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) in Africa from 2010 to 2015, and last month the United Nations Secretary General launched the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health.  The time is right to invest in girls and women.

There are cost-effective health strategies that can save and improve the lives of women and children such as family planning programs and early postnatal care, which strengthen health systems for everyone. This year, new statistics were released by the Lancet showing a decrease in maternal mortality rates worldwide.  Some NTDs can be prevented with safe single-dose medication, while others can be eradicated with plans focusing on health education to prevent transmission. In fact, the previously mentioned guinea worm has seen a drop of cases from the 3.5 million in 1986 to 1,132 in 2010. These successes prove that interventions are powerful and technically feasible, but work is not done.

Investment in health interventions saves lives, strengthening families, communities, economies, nations, and our world.  Investment in girls and women has high returns on economic, health, education, and environmental grounds.  Considering maternal health in a broad context, including in relation to neglected tropical diseases, is about avoidable death and disability in preventable circumstances.

Ten years ago, the 2000 Millennium Summit saw the adoption of the MDGs. Despite laudable progress in some countries, we are falling far short of their achievement, especially around MDG 5 (reducing maternal mortality rates worldwide and increasing reproductive health access). In 2010, women and girls are still the majority of poor and vulnerable people and half the world’s population is under 25. The final push to the MDG deadline is beginning. We have only five years left. It’s time to deliver for women, and I call upon world leaders to invest in the health of girls and women in order to achieve all the MDGs.

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