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Bringing Health Care Closer to Home is Key to Saving Children's Lives

Over 200 million children around the world lack basic health care, and nearly 10 million youngsters under the age of five die every year. These are some of the findings of Save the Children's 9th annual State of the World's Mothers report.

This year, the global humanitarian organization's report included the first-ever Basic Health Care Report Card. It ranks 55 developing countries according to their ability to reach children with basic health care.

At the top of that list are the Philippines, Peru, South Africa and Indonesia. Although these countries have been able to extend health care services to many children, the benefits usually go first to the richer segment of society.

"The poor are dying at alarmingly higher rates," Save the Children's Mary Beth Powers. "We really have to double efforts to reach the poor with basic health care."

Powers says common diseases among children in developing countries, like pneumonia, diarrhea and measles, can be treated easily and inexpensively. However, millions of mothers still lose their children to these diseases every year. They are either unaware of the treatments or unable to get them.

"As a mother, the tragedy of losing a child is, I imagine, unbearable," says actress Jessica Lange, Save the Children's newest spokesperson, "but to lose a child for something that's treatable is a thousand times worse."

Last month, Lange, a mother of three, visited Ethiopia, which ranks last on the Basic Health Care list. Eighty-three percent of Ethiopian children don't get basic services, such as immunizations, antibiotics and skilled care at birth.

"In Ethiopia, only 6 percent of deliveries are attended by a skilled practitioner," she says.

During her trip to Ethiopia, Lange visited a community-training program that Save the Children established in a remote area.

"I think one of the biggest things that surprised me was the idea of the community training of health care workers and establishing clinics that are accessible to people because traditionally transportation was almost impossible for them," she says. "They would talk about having to walk a full day to bring their child who was sick to health care centers."

Training local caregivers in remote areas is essential for bringing health care services closer to home, according to Mary Beth Powers. Those local health workers, she adds, can also help raise awareness among mothers who are usually uneducated.

"Knowing the difference between a bad cold and something that's more severe, suggesting pneumonia, that's a critical judgment," she says. "A lot of parents are not well enough educated to know the difference so you need a health worker or a Mom in the village who can help them make the assessment."

Another section of Save the Children's report compares the well-being of mothers and children in 146 countries. Sweden is rated the best country in which to be a mother, Niger is last.

The United States ranks 27th, and Powers says there's a reason. "So many mothers do not get adequate health care during pregnancy and at childbirth," she says. "We have high rates of maternal mortality and child mortality especially among minority communities in the U.S."

Save the Children Ambassador Jessica Lange says fixing the U.S. health care system is one of the top issues in this year's Presidential election campaign. She'd like to see more health services available for all Americans regardless of their financial situation. She also hopes the United States and other Western countries will do more to help save children's lives in the developing world.

"I think people have to become aware. They have to become conscientious about it," she says. "We have before the Congress right now the Global Child Survival Act. I think people, if they care about children around the world, can contact their [representatives in] Congress and let them know how important it is for this to be passed."

The act would expand funding for proven health measures like antibiotics and immunizations. Passing it, Lange says, will recommit the United States to leading the way in improving children's health. She says with such efforts, the global community will be able to save millions of young lives every year.