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Millions of maternal and child deaths are preventable, UN says on World Health Day

Millions of maternal and child deaths are preventable, UN says on World Health Day

With more than half a million women dying in pregnancy or childbirth each year and nearly 11 million children succumbing annually before their fifth birthday, the United Nations system today devoted this year’s World Health Day to the hundreds of millions of women and children who have no access to potentially life-saving care.

“This is a public health crisis and a moral outrage,” UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said in a message stressing that far too many women are deprived of access to basic health services that are fundamental to the fulfilment of their human rights.

“Let us move from lines in speeches to budget lines,” she added, calling for a sharp increase in cost-effective interventions that have been shown to work, such as skilled medical attendants for delivery which would reduce maternal deaths by nearly 75 per cent, or simple family planning services that could cut maternal mortality by 25 per cent and child deaths by 20 per cent.

Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by world leaders at a UN summit five years ago pledged to reduce maternal deaths by three quarters and cut child mortality by two thirds by 2015. But, he said in his message, “while there has been progress in some regions, there has been stagnation in others.

“In some countries, progress has even been reversed. World Health Day is an opportunity to highlight the problem, but above all, to stimulate action. It is an occasion to call on all partners – governments, international donors, civil society, the private sector, the media, families and individuals alike – to develop sustainable activities for the survival, health and well-being of mothers and children.”

In an annual report published to mark the day, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the death toll could be sharply reduced through wider use of “key interventions” and a “continuum of care” approach to mother and child that begins before pregnancy and extends through childbirth and into the baby’s childhood.

According to “The World Health Report 2005 – Make every mother and child count,” almost 90 per cent of all deaths among children under five are attributable to just six causes – such as birth asphyxia and infections, diarrhoea and measles – that are largely avoidable through existing care that is simple, affordable and effective.

While this requires massive investment in health systems, “this approach has the potential to transform the lives of millions of people,” WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook said. “Giving mothers, babies and children the care they need is an absolute imperative.”

The report estimated that out of 136 million births each year worldwide, less than two thirds of women in less developed countries and only one third in the least developed countries have their babies delivered by a skilled attendant. More than 3 million babies are stillborn and more than 4 million newborns die within the first days or weeks of life.

Assessing some of the costs involved, WHO adviser Ian Smith told a news briefing in New York that it would take $39 billion over 10 years to move towards the MDG of improving the health of newborns and $52 billion for improving child health care.

"The international community cannot be indifferent to this situation, as it continues to remind us, five years after the Millennium Declaration, that much progress is still to be achieved to reduce maternal death and child mortality by 2015," said the UN General Assembly President, Jean Ping of Gabon, calling for increased financial, material and technical aid from financial institutions and other donors.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) highlighted environmental hazards as a major cause of global death and disease, with the burden falling disproportionately on women and young children, especially in less developed countries.

It stressed the importance of promoting environmentally sound technologies for freshwater and sanitation provision, clean energy solutions to combat indoor and outdoor air pollution, and wide-ranging programmes to mitigate chemical and hazardous waste pollution.

And the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) underscored its role in helping developing countries acquire the radiation therapy that will be needed to treat 175 million of the estimated 260 million new cancer cases that will need such care over the next 20 years.

“We are working to apply nuclear techniques where they will count the most, to enhance the lives of people around the globe," IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei said in describing the peaceful applications of nuclear technology supported by his agency, such as low-cost screening methods for hepatitis C and congenital hypothyroidism, detecting drug resistance in malaria and tuberculosis cases, monitoring nutritional problems and improving management of food supplementation programmes.