Canada will join an international group of foreign-aid heavyweights Wednesday to launch a new initiative aimed at stemming the alarming number of deaths of newborns and their mothers in the developing world.
"Saving Lives at Birth" - the new program - will spend $14-million this year and $50-million over five years to find solutions for a disturbing trend: 150,000 mothers and 1.6 million infants die worldwide each year in the 72-hour window after a child is born. Another 1.2 million children are stillborn.
Philanthropist Melinda Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are among those gathering in Washington to announce the partnership between Grand Challenges Canada, an independent not-for-profit launched earlier this year using federal funds, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank and the government of Norway.
The group coalesced around the "carnage" of mothers and babies dying just after birth, problems that have proven to be particularly intractable, said Peter Singer, CEO of Grand Challenges Canada.
According to the World Health Organization, 8.8 million children under age five died in 2008, many of them because of afflictions like diarrhea, pneumonia and measles. Yet even though children in low-income countries are still 13 times more likely to die young than children in the developed world, the WHO says there has been substantial progress on this front in recent years.
But relatively little headway has been made on deaths in the first 72 hours, according to Dr. Singer. These deaths result mostly from complications such as bleeding, infections, premature births, breech deliveries and lack of transportation to adequate care, and often affect women in rural or remote places.
"This is more than just a statistical problem or a numbers game. This is a huge ethical challenge - maybe the mother of all ethical challenges," Dr. Singer told The Globe and Mail.
Examples of the kinds of simple, low-cost solutions the group hopes to spur already exist in prototype form: a specially engineered sleeping bag that can substitute for an incubator, keeping an at-risk baby's temperature at the right level; a mobile phone service that allows a mother to input her due date and receive regular advice by text message about how she should be preparing; or a business model for a low-cost, wide-reaching ambulance service.
When they work, Dr. Singer said, these kinds of projects are examples of how Canada could reduce its own swelling health-care costs. He cited India's Aravind Eye Hospitals, which perform as many cataract surgeries as Canada for "a tiny fraction of the price."
For such a daunting problem, the money committed to the first wave of "Saving Lives at Birth" grants is conspicuously small. Joseph Rotman, the philanthropist who chairs the board of Grand Challenges Canada, suspects the federal government realized it is a sum that could easily "get lost" in Canada's $5-billion foreign-aid envelope, and decided to bankroll Grand Challenges Canada as a targeted risk.
The group's confidence in its strategy comes from a staunch belief in the Grand Challenges approach - a family of grants dedicated to surmounting key barriers to progress in a given field. In Canada, that strategy relies heavily on the trademarked phrase "Integrated Innovation" - simply put, inviting science, business, and social innovators to work together on a local solution with the help of grant money.
The program is accepting proposals until late April, and in December will hand out 20 to 25 "seed" grants at $250,000 each, and two to three $2.5-million grants designed to explore whether emerging ideas can be expanded to help large numbers of people. Though some of Canada's contribution will be awarded to Canadians, it will go primarily to established scientists and entrepreneurs in "low- and middle-income countries."
"We think people need to solve their own problems to be sustainable," Dr. Singer said.
The Grand Challenges approach first surfaced in the early 1900s, when David Hilbert applied it to mathematics, and saw a return to prominence when the Gates Foundation applied it to global health efforts in 2003. But when the federal government's promise of $225-million over five years launched Grand Challenges Canada last year, Canada became the first country to fund this method directly from its foreign-aid budget.
"We have got something that I think is extremely unique in allowing Canada to lead in a way that can be globally significant," Mr. Rotman said.