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Canada has expressed a desire to champion the issue of maternal, reproductive and child health at the G8 summit.

So it is strange in the extreme that the country has yet to respond to an invitation to attend a global conference on the subject, to be held June 7-9, in Washington, just weeks before the G8 gathering.

More than 3,500 maternal health policy-makers, experts and leaders will attend the Washington meeting, organized by the advocacy group Women Deliver. Funded by the U.S., France, Spain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, participants include a wide variety of stakeholders, from Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General of the UN, and philanthropist Melinda Gates to the former presidents of Ireland and Chile. They will focus on developing political, economic, social and technological solutions to help reduce the death rates of women and children in the developing world - an important precursor to the G8 June summit. Organizers expect that Barack Obama will also attend.

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While maternal mortality rates are dropping for the first time in years, between 350,000 and 500,000 women still die every year in childbirth, or from pregnancy, costing the world $12-billion (U.S.) in lost production. One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to reduce by two-thirds the number of children who die before they reach five years old, and the number of women who die while pregnant or in childbirth by 75 per cent by 2015.

Many of these deaths can be prevented by simple, cost-effective measures. These include: making contraceptives more widely available; improving access to treatment for HIV/AIDS; and improving care before, during and after childbirth, says Jill Sheffield, president and founder of Women Deliver. She spoke yesterday to the standing committee on the status of women in Ottawa, urging Canada to take a leadership role. That does not require the presence of Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Washington conference, but Canada should send Lawrence Cannon, Minister of Foreign Affairs, or Bev Oda, Minister of International Co-operation, to the meeting to underscore the priority it places on the issue.

The world knows what needs to be done on maternal health. Solutions have largely been identified. Action is needed much more than further international forums. However, as the host of the G8 and G20, Canada has a responsibility to build consensus.

The G8 summit could serve as a catalyst to establish global support for maternal health. If Canada wants to lead this effort, it must also take a seat at the table of conferences dedicated to solving it.

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