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London's Maternal Conference Ends on Hopeful Note

The three-day Women Deliver conference, which focused on maternal and infant mortality, ended Saturday in London. As Tendai Maphosa reports, the organizers and delegates hope it will give new momentum to efforts to reduce pregnancy and birth-related deaths.

The London conference was held on the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Safe Motherhood Initiative in Kenya.

But since then, more than 500,000 women worldwide have died annually from pregnancy and birth-related complications.

As the conference opened, Jill Sheffield of Family Care International, a non-governmental organization, said progress has been slow.

At conference end, she was more upbeat, recognizing a political will she said was not there before.

"This was a political meeting," she said. "We have governments ready to invest in making that work, we have ministers of finance, planning, local government and health who were here. There is a nucleus from each of 32 countries who came here to work together and go home to work together. And those 32 countries are very high maternal mortality countries."

The majority of maternal deaths occur in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Pius Okong is an obstetrician from Uganda. He explained that while the numbers are high in sub-Saharan Africa, maternal mortality is not given the priority it deserves. He said women frequently die in remote parts of the country and their deaths are regarded as due to natural causes.

Dr. Okong added that while epidemics such as cholera or ebola provoke an immediate response, maternal mortality does not carry the same weight. Okong said governments and NGOs that are motivated will make the difference.

"If the leaders from Africa who have come here catch the vision, they are passionate about going back to do something then they will do something," he said. "If the people who have certain types of resources whether its technology whether it is money whether its advocacy to help the people in Africa they will make a difference."

The conference took place amid concerns that Millennium Development Goal Five, which aims to improve maternal health, may not be achieved. The United Nations goal is to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent between 1990 and 2015.

Family care International's Sheffield says even if the goal is not met, it is possible to get close if everyone works hard enough.

"We might not get quite there, we are starting way far behind, but part of the strength of my feeling about this is the recognition that those other Millennium Development Goals are not going to be as successful if we don't reach number five," she added. "Women are absolutely at the heart of our families and our communities, they are also at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals."

Sheffield said the example of Honduras - where the government succeeded in reducing maternal mortality by forty percent - is proof that political will can tip the balance.