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Good Governance, Improved Medical Training Help Improve Maternal Health [Part 3 of 5]

More than 300,000 African women die each year from pregnancy-related causes. And in 15 African countries, one out of four children will not live to see their fifth birthday. Experts say over half could have been prevented with better low-cost medical care, including access to health facilities. Leading the charge to reduce child and maternal mortality is an international initiative called Countdown to 2015 – Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. The program is being conducted by the UN, national governments and health-related NGOs. Its goal is to cut in half the number of deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth over the next seven years. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Unathi Kondile in Cape Town says a recent report by the global campaign called Countdown to 2015 identified 68 countries that account for almost all of the maternal and child deaths.

According to Countdown, these countries need much stronger health systems, which deliver essential services around the clock. But it found that 54 of the 68 countries face critical shortages of health workers needed to reduce maternal and child mortality.

Dr. Mickey Chopra runs a research unit in the Medical Research Council of South Africa.

He says, “We’ve got to improve the quality of care in our health systems. That depends on having motivated health workers -- having good supervision. They must know what to do, know when to give the right things at the right time. Getting people to do things at the right time means they need to have the right equipment, knowledge, support to do that – so this is what the health systems are all about."

One country that has improved healthcare and lowered maternal and child deaths is Egypt. From the early 1990s, Egypt realized the benefits of having a good health care system. It began to improve health facilities and also employed more community healthcare workers to provide skilled care for mothers. The workers were sent to visit mothers at their homes and help them with breastfeeding, so the babies get the important nutrients they need to thrive. The Egyptian health care system also used mass media to instruct mothers on childcare, including how to prevent potentially fatal diseases such as diarrhea. Egypt has reduced child mortality by over half -- to 130 deaths in 100,000 live births.

Eritrea, a low-income country, has also made progress. There, child and newborn deaths have been reduced by around 4% per year over the last decade. Basic health services have been improved, including health services for the poor.

Joy Lawn is a senior research and policy advisor for the Saving Newborn Live Program of Save the Children-US, which is funded by the Gates Foundation. Lawn says Eritrea, Egypt and 14 other countries are reducing child and mother mortality by taking similar steps:

“Obviously good governance is extremely helpful – as are consistent investments in health and particularly investments that target high impact interventions. So for instance we can invest a lot in health but maybe we’re in the wrong things or investing in the wrong people. We may be just looking after rich people in large cities but not looking after people in poor areas.”

Many reasons have been cited for poor health care systems and lack of good care. But health experts say most of the affected countries need evidence comprehensive data to improve policies. Health experts say better data collection on maternal and child health – and a renewed commitment by national governments – should go a long way toward meeting the Millennium Challenge goal of cutting birth-related mortality.