This post is by the Global Center’s Rabita Aziz.
The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood joined with several other health and development organizations to host a panel discussion on maternal health in Africa on Capitol Hill today. The forum was moderated by African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) board member and journalist Carol Jenkins. It also featured Eric Friedman with Physicians for Human Rights, Katie Porter with CARE, and Dr. Miriam Were, another board member of AMREF and the former chairperson of the National AIDS Control Council of Kenya.
The panelists discussed ways to reach the 4th and 5th UN Millennium Development Goals, which focus on reducing child and maternal mortality rates and achieving universal access to reproductive health care by 2015. Africa is home to 24 percent of the world’s disease burden and more than over half of the world’s maternal mortality cases, but only 3 percent of the world’s health care force.
The panelists outlined actions that must be taken to reduce the disturbingly high maternal mortality rate, while also generally improving health systems in Africa. Eric Friedman cited this recent Lancet study, which showed that maternal mortality rates have decreased to less than 350,000 deaths in 2008 from over half a million in 1980. But study also found that HIV remains a major barrier to saving more mother’s lives. For example, Friedman pointed the study’s findings that 20 percent of deaths during pregnancy, childbirth , or post-partum are linked to HIV/AIDS. (Read more about that study here and here.) He went on to say that ensuring universal access to HIV/AIDS treatment is critical for reducing the number of maternal mortalities. In addition, it is vital that additional care and support are provided to HIV-infected mothers and that prevention programs are scaled up. One audience member pointed out that many of the women who died due HIV/AIDS complications had no access to treatment whatsoever. Friedman said the number of AIDS-related maternal deaths could potentially increase in the future because of the flat funding for US global AIDS programs, which has resulted in some patients—including pregnant and breastfeeding women— being turned away for treatment.
When asked about how international support can be galvanized to increase financial support for maternal health programs, Porter answered that the best way to mobilize world leaders is for the U.S. government to take stronger actions and make larger contributions to global health programs. She said if the U.S. shows a larger commitment to reaching the MDGs, then that will help leverage greater support from other donor nations
Dr. Were said because the U.S. has an elevated position in the world, it is uniquely poised to dedicate more resources to greatly improve the dismal state of maternal health in Africa. Friedman said that just an additional $35-$40 contribution per American, per year, would save 23 million lives by 2015. The panelists urged lawmakers and members of civil society alike to take such numbers into consideration and ask what our priorities are.