In Ghana last week, I had the privilege to participate in the Africa Christian Health Associations’ 5th Biennial Conference, “Improving Women’s and Children’s Health in Africa.”
Christian Health Associations and networks from Africa and partner organizations met to take stock of their efforts in support of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and discuss opportunities to strengthen local capacity to deliver services for women and children.
USAID’s Bureau for Global Health has worked with numerous organizations to support the critical roles played by churches, mosques, synagogues and other faith networks in their broader communities. We have successfully empowered various faith-based leaders to speak openly in their respective communities about the crippling effects of HIV and AIDS and about the importance of planning one’s family and preventing children and families from falling ill and dying from malaria.
Last week, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah delivered the David E. Barmes Global Health Lecture at the National Institutes of Health. Recounting the successes that have been achieved in recent decades in global health, Dr. Shah outlined the challenges that currently exist and set out a roadmap for USAID and the wider health community to take advantage of the window of opportunity in front of us to accomplish a new wave of successes that can dramatically improve health around the world, particularly for children under age five and women.
He said, “Our largest opportunities to improve human health do not lie in optimizing services to the 20 percent of people in the developing world currently reached by health systems; they lie in extending our reach to the 80 percent who lack access to health facilities.”
Partnerships with faith-based and community organizations are essential to reaching that 80 percent because faith communities provide critical health services — in some countries, faith groups operate anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of health facilities.
USAID has decades of experience in community-based work that takes health care out of fixed facilities and into the community.
Saving the lives of women and children requires a range of care that includes improving nutrition and training of birth attendants, who can help women give birth safely. It also requires increased access to family planning information and services and the widespread adoption of proven, inexpensive tools and key practices like rehydration liquids to combat diarrhea, immunizations for childhood diseases and vitamin supplements to fight malnutrition.
In September, President Obama signed the first-ever presidential policy directive on U.S. global development, elevating development — and with it global health — as a pillar of US foreign policy, along with diplomacy and defense. The Global Health Initiative embodies this new policy. It builds on the experience of the last decade, maximizing development impact and leveraging knowledge and human ingenuity.
As President Obama so ably put it, “When a child dies from a preventable disease, it shocks our conscience.”
There is no better time to act. The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, launched by the UN Secretary-General in September, is an unprecedented effort to improve the lives of women and children in the developing world and meet the MDGs of reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015.