When was the last time you heard a woman say, “I went to the hospital to have my baby, but they sent me to the drug shop down the street to buy supplies?” Or a health worker say, “I knew what medicine my patient needed, but I haven’t had that medicine for months?”
If you live in the U.S. or any other developed country, you’ve probably never heard this, or would think this woman and health worker were joking. But for women, families, and providers in developing countries, these stories and others are all too common…and it’s definitely not a joke. As my colleague, Mary Ellen Stanton, eloquently captures in her post earlier this week on Saving Mothers, Giving Life, lifesaving medicines are frustratingly unavailable to millions of women and children each year. It is unimaginable that simple and affordable medicines could save millions of lives, yet are still so far out of reach for millions.
The medicine oxytocin is needed to prevent and treat severe bleeding after childbirth. Oral rehydration salts (ORS) and zinc are needed to prevent deaths from childhood diarrhea. And family planning commodities are needed to ensure women and their families can decide when or whether to have children – all key factors in maternal and child survival.
Over the past few years, I’ve been working on access to maternal health medicines or commodities. During this time, I’ve learned that the issues related to lack of availability, access, and demand for maternal, newborn, and child health and family planning commodities have many causes, including lack of manufacturers; lack of quality control at many points in the supply chain; providers are unfamiliar with or untrained in newer medicines or equipment; supplies don’t reach the “last mile” to remote health centers; and people don’t know that treatments are available.
But I’ve also learned that these are not insurmountable challenges. Commodities of various types do reach distant and hard-to-reach areas. One often cited example is Coca-Cola, a beverage enjoyed by millions every day, which is both affordable and available even in the most remote villages. You can actually get a Coke in remote Tshikaji, DRC!
And now, we are seeing renewed commitment among donors, country governments, and other stakeholders to make lifesaving health commodities accessible, affordable and available to millions of women, children and families around the world.
Today, the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children released 10 bold recommendations which, if achieved, will ensure women and children will have access to 13 life-saving commodities.
USAID’s long term, strategic vision looks to integrate these life-saving commodities as part of the next steps to other key efforts, like the Child Survival Call to Action and London Summit on Family Planning, in order to increase the speed at which we scale-up in host countries. It is important that we learn from our experiences and successes in getting vaccines and malaria, HIV/AIDS, and family planning commodities into the hands and homes of those most in need. Additionally, we need to integrate systems across commodities to better and more efficiently serve women and children everywhere, and scale up programs to have nation-wide impact.
Country leadership is also a vital component to successfully addressing many of the Commission’s recommendations. Getting pallets of commodities in warehouses is just one step. Medicines and drugs must reach people, and health care workers have to be present and skilled to administer them.
With our host country partners in the lead, we are working to strengthen supply chains for commodities, which include use of mHealth solutions; support local market shaping; improve the quality of medicines; and increase demand by mothers for necessary medicines. This needs to happen if we are to ensure the poorest and most vulnerable women and children have the commodities they need.
These two themes, integration and country ownership, form the cornerstones of our work. My hope is that someday soon, I’ll walk past a market in a remote part of Africa with fully stocked shelves of Coke, and into a health clinic fully stocked with life-saving commodities and medicines.