Dr. Peter Singer is CEO, and Dr. Karlee Silver is vice-president, targeted challenges, of Grand Challenges Canada.
On Mother's Day, what is the best gift a mother can receive? As many children are delivering breakfast in bed and hand-drawn cards to their mothers, for most mothers, the gift of seeing their child survive and thrive – reaching his or her full potential – is the best gift of all.
Sadly, this is not the case for the mothers of 6.3 million children who die each year around the world before their fifth birthday. The vast majority of these deaths are in the developing world and preventable.
There is hope. In 1960, 20 million children died; in one lifetime that solemn figure has been reduced by almost three quarters.
On Mother's Day, Canadians can feel proud that Canada is making a difference by saving women and children around the world through innovation. In the broadest sense innovation means that tomorrow will be a brighter day than today.
Some innovations involve new technologies, but many social and business innovations involve new and better ways of providing the care we know saves the lives of women and children.
The time right around birth is critical. About 42 per cent of deaths of children under five years of age occur during the newborn period (first 30 days of life) and, shockingly, one million children die on the day of their birth. Also, deaths of women and newborns are inextricably linked (tragically, 293,000 women die each year in pregnancy and childbirth).
To tackle this challenge, Grand Challenges Canada, which is funded by the government of Canada, partnered with USAID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UKAid and the government of Norway to stimulate and scale innovations that could save the lives of women and children around the time of birth.
To date, the Saving Lives at Birth partnership has supported 59 innovations, and some are starting to show early results:
– In Nepal, it has been shown that applying chlorhexidine, an antiseptic commonly found in mouthwash, onto the umbilical cord of newborns saves newborn lives. An NGO called JSI has trained 30,000 health workers to distribute the antiseptic and 730,000 women have received it throughout half the districts in Nepal. In 2014, an estimated 500,000 tubes of chlorhexidine will be distributed in five countries. It is estimated that for every 200 tubes distributed – each costing 20 cents – one newborn life will be saved.
– In Kenya, an insurance company called Changamka MicroHealth has shown that maternity vouchers to pay for care and transport increase the number of women who deliver in hospital from 31 per cent to 85 per cent. Changamka has recently completed an agreement with the mobile money service mPESA to scale insurance for families in Kenya's urban centres and it is hoped this model can be extended to poorer, rural families as well.
– In Nigeria, a local NGO called development Research Projects Centre has engaged imams to improve their knowledge of women's and children's health, such as the importance of immunizations. The imams are demonstrating increased knowledge and preaching on beneficial women's and children's health practices. According to the NGO, in the imam's districts, complete child immunizations have increased from 31 per cent to 42 per cent.
– In Malawi, a team from Rice University developed a $400 ventilator for newborns with breathing difficulties. The device, a 'bubble CPAP', increases survival of newborns with severe breathing difficulties from 25 per cent to 75 per cent.
– A final example involves a Vancouver start-up company, LGTmedical which, working with University of British Columbia, has developed a 'phone oximeter'– enabling a smartphone to measure blood oxygen to help save women and children's lives. More than 80,000 women and 500,000 infants die each year from pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure of pregnancy), one of the leading causes of maternal mortality. Additionally, pneumonia annually claims the lives of more than 1 million children under the age of five. The 'phone oximeter' aims to reduce these mortality rates by a targeted 30 per cent.
But ask any mother in the world what she hopes for her child and she will likely say she aspires for her child not merely to survive but also to thrive. Sadly, more than 200 million children who are reaching their fifth birthdays are failing to reach their full potential because of disruptions to their developing brains in the first 1,000 days of life (starting at or just before conception) that persist into adulthood.
These disruptions can be prevented and we are learning that many of the innovations that save lives also save brains – that is, help protect the child's growing brain so later in life she can reach her full potential. For example, a classic study from Guatemala showed that children who received a balanced nutritional supplement before age three earned 46 per cent more as adults.
Canada's leadership in maternal, newborn and child health was established in 2010 through the Muskoka initiative, which focused the world's attention on this issue and committed $2.85-billion through 2015. Recently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a 'Saving Every Woman Every Child' campaign beginning with a Global Summit on Maternal and Child Health in Toronto at the end of May.
These commitments increase the prospects for Happy Mother's Days around the world.