With hundreds of thousands of women and girls dying in pregnancy or childbirth every year and 10 to 15 million more suffering long-lasting disabilities, the United Nations today outlined steps for a multi-pronged campaign to fight the scourge.
Calling for urgent and strategic efforts, the Joint Action Plan will urge all stakeholders, developed and developing countries, civil society actors, private businesses, philanthropic institutions and the multilateral system to each offer new initiatives and adopt an accountability framework that will keep maternal and child health high on the national and international development agenda.
“The fact remains that one preventable maternal death is too many; hundreds of thousands are simply unacceptable – this, in the 21st century,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told key partners on the eve of a formal meeting that he has convened for tomorrow to further develop a set of concrete actions to advance the Plan.
“It has been 10 years since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs),” he said of the ambitious targets set by the UN Summit of 2000 to slash a host of social ills by 2015, including reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters. “We are making great strides in some areas. In some countries maternal deaths are declining. That is great news.
“But progress on maternal health is still lagging far behind. For too long, maternal and child health has been at the back of the MDG train, but we know it can be the engine of development. So we say: women and children first. After all, a health system that delivers for mothers will deliver for the whole community. But, first, we must deliver.”
Those present included President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of Tanzania, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, Indonesian Vice President Boediono, United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Canadian Minister of International Cooperation Beverley Oda.
Mr. Ban recalled that he himself was born not in a hospital but at home in a small Korean village, where hospitals and clinics were then faraway luxuries, and older women from the community had experience rather than medical training to draw on.
“One of my strongest memories is the custom of women at the time as they went into labour,” he said. “They would look at their shoes before entering into the room and... just stare at their shoes, their simple rubber shoes. I remember seeing this once and asking my mother, ‘But why? What is she doing?’ And my mother said, ‘She is wondering if she will ever be able to step into those shoes again,’ because at that time, there was no such medical help for women.
“It was a plea, a quiet prayer: Let me make it through. Let me walk this earth again. Always, there were doubts. Far too often, there were tragedies. Many women died. Even today, in villages, towns and cities around the world, these fears remain all too real. In our world today, too many women lose their lives giving life.”
Mr. Ban highlighted the collective success in tackling HIV/AIDS and the enhanced coordination of the governments and partners that has been instrumental in putting the world on the path to zero deaths from malaria by 2015 as precedents for the joint action to accelerate support to countries to improve maternal and newborn survival.
“Make no mistake, all of us must do more, Member States, civil society, the business community, the private sector, foundations, NGOs (non-governmental organizations), the United Nations,” he said, stressing that the action plan must emphasize coordination and evidence-based interventions, offer a platform for new commitments and promote unprecedented accountability.
“The clock is ticking. Between now and the MDG Summit in September, every partner must step up… Developed countries can mobilize the full range of human and material resources – and increase their financial commitments. Developing countries can update national health plans to prioritize financing, implementation and monitoring of delivery services for women and children. Foundations can spotlight this issue.
“Businesses can develop new drugs and vaccines and work to bring the newest technologies to even the most remote communities. Civil society groups and citizens everywhere can advocate, mobilize, and hold policymakers to account,” he added.
“Let us act so every expectant mother can get back in her shoes... every child can get a head-start in life... and their daughters and granddaughters can truly step into a better world.”
At a later news conference Mr. Ban called the hundreds of thousands of deaths annually “a disgrace, a disgrace that we need not tolerate.”
UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan cited political commitment and leadership, robust national plans with accountability indicators, and a consolidated investment in cost-effective multi-pronged interventions that target several goals at once as characteristics that will determine success.
Asked about the discrepancy between the latest UN estimates that put the annual maternal death toll at some 500,000 and the figure of 342,900 for 2009, a drop from 526,300 in 1980, published today by the British medical journal The Lancet, Ms. Chan said an inter-agency group was conducting an update and the early signal is that the trends are similar to what The Lancet reported.
“So basically we are seeing progress,” she added. “But it is also correct to say that the progress is not enough, the progress is fragile. Some countries are making progress, primarily India, China, Rwanda, Tanzania, Ethiopia – the list is longer than what I have just said – but the… UN has 192 countries, so we would like to see further progress in other countries.”