A report released by scientists in seven African countries says almost four million women, newborns, and children in sub-Saharan Africa could be saved every year if well-established, affordable health care services reached 90 percent of families.
Though Africa contains only 11 percent of the global population, it accounts for half of the world's maternal and child deaths and more than half of the world's deaths from malaria and HIV.
Each one of those problems is preventable and treatable, and a new report released by seven African national academies of science says African nations are underutilizing existing medical knowledge that could save lives.
U.N. Millennium Development Goals call for reducing under-five mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015. Sub-Saharan Africa is off-track to achieve those goals, but the report says they are not out of reach. It says the most effective improvements, such as insecticide-treated bed nets and immunizations, are often not the most difficult or the most expensive.
Entitled Science In Action: Saving the Lives of Africa's Mothers, Newborns, and Children, the report targets policymakers. It says African governments have a responsibility to meet these challenges and encourages them to partner with scientists to make the most efficient changes to their health care systems.
Dr. Joy Lawn, a South-Africa-based pediatrician and researcher for Save the Children, worked on the report and says it is a "call to action" for African policy makers. "I think it is throwing down a gauntlet in a way because the report was not written just by me and a few co-editors. There are 60 African scientists involved in this, and each of those people feel, having looked at the data, that their country, even countries that are doing well, could do better. In some cases it's about spending more, but in many cases it is about spending wisely, picking the right things to do and really focusing on those.," she said.
The report looks at what Dr. Lawn calls "the gap between science and action." To close that gap fully, it says, would mean an 86 percent reduction in deaths, or 4 million lives. But that will not happen overnight. Researchers also looked at targeted changes that could be made to countries' health offerings and produce impressive results in just two years.
For example, almost half of births now take place in health facilities in Africa, but Dr. Lawn says many health centers still can not treat common complications, such as a baby who does not breathe at birth. "Only one in four facility births are looked after by somebody who is trained and equipped to be able to do neonatal resuscitation. It is not expensive. It is a decision to do it. And when we looked at what would happen if these nine example countries just set out to provide effective interventions for births that are already in facilities, there was really quite a dramatic drop in deaths just from that alone," she said.
Researchers looked at what was causing maternal, newborn and child deaths in each of the nine example countries and then used free, downloadable software to calculate potential lives saved by various health measures. Some of the most effective interventions were increased access to contraception, skilled attendance at childbirth and promotion of breastfeeding.
Dr. Lawn says there are already success stories. Ghana, where the report was released Monday, has recently achieved a major reduction in child deaths and increased the number of women giving birth in health facilities by making birth services free.
Dr. Lawn says the message of this report is that no matter where a country is with regards to the quality and extent of its health care coverage, basic but targeted innovations can produce dramatic results and save lives.