Millions of mothers and children are dying unnecessarily

The millions of seemingly preventable deaths of women and children each year has prompted the United Nations to devote this year’s World Health Day to highlighting their plight.

More than half a million women die in pregnancy or childbirth each year and nearly 11 million children die before their fifth birthday and these shocking figures are, says Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), a public health crisis and a moral outrage, stressing that far too many women are deprived of access to basic health services that are fundamental to the fulfilment of their human rights.

Obaid is calling for a sharp increase in cost-effective interventions that have been shown to work, such as skilled medical attendants for delivery which would reduce maternal deaths by nearly 75 per cent, or simple family planning services that could cut maternal mortality by 25 per cent and child deaths by 20 per cent. and wants to see a "move from lines in speeches to budget lines".

Kofi Annan, UN secretary-General, says that even though the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by world leaders at a UN summit five years ago, pledged to reduce maternal deaths by three quarters and cut child mortality by two thirds by 2015, the little progress seen in some areas was offset by stagnation in others and in some countries, progress has even been reversed.

Annan says World Health Day is an opportunity to highlight the problem, but above all, to stimulate action and is an occasion to "call on all partners – governments, international donors, civil society, the private sector, the media, families and individuals alike – to develop sustainable activities for the survival, health and well-being of mothers and children.”

An annual report, The World Health Report 2005, published by the World Health Organization (WHO) to mark the day, says the death toll could be drastically reduced through wider use of “key interventions” and a “continuum of care” approach to mother and child that begins before pregnancy and extends through childbirth and into the baby’s childhood. The vast majority of deaths among children under five are attributable to just six causes – such as birth asphyxia and infections, diarrhoea and measles – that are largely avoidable through existing care that is simple, affordable and effective.

A massive investment in health systems is needed and this approach could potentially transform the lives of millions of people, says WHO Director-General Lee Jong-wook , “giving mothers, babies and children the care they need is an absolute imperative.”

The report estimated that out of 136 million births each year worldwide, less than two thirds of women in less developed countries and only one third in the least developed countries have their babies delivered by a skilled attendant. More than 3 million babies are stillborn and more than 4 million newborns die within the first days or weeks of life.

WHO adviser Ian Smith told a news briefing in New York that it would take $39 billion over 10 years to move towards the MDG of improving the health of newborns and $52 billion for improving child health care.

UN General Assembly President, Jean Ping of Gabon says the international community cannot be indifferent to this situation, as it continues to remind us, five years after the Millennium Declaration, that much progress is still to be achieved to reduce maternal death and child mortality by 2015, and he is calling for increased financial, material and technical aid from financial institutions and other donors.

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP), highlighted environmental hazards as a major cause of global death and disease, with the burden falling disproportionately on women and young children, especially in less developed countries and stressed the importance of promoting environmentally sound technologies for freshwater and sanitation provision, clean energy solutions to combat indoor and outdoor air pollution, and wide-ranging programmes to mitigate chemical and hazardous waste pollution.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is contributing by helping developing countries acquire the radiation therapy that will be needed to treat 175 million of the estimated 260 million new cancer cases that will need such care over the next 20 years. They are working to apply nuclear techniques where they will count the most, to enhance the lives of people around the globe, says IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei.

His agency is supporting the peaceful applications of nuclear technology such as low-cost screening methods for hepatitis C and congenital hypothyroidism, detecting drug resistance in malaria and tuberculosis cases, monitoring nutritional problems and improving management of food supplementation programmes.

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