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Rosemary McCarney is president and CEO of Plan Canada. Dr. Dorothy Shaw is vice-president of medical affairs at B.C. Women's Hospital in Vancouver. They are co-chairs of the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

In Africa today, women are literally dying to give birth. They perish in childbirth as they are rushed, often in wheelbarrows, to usually distant and ill-equipped health care facilities in a desperate attempt to save their lives and those of their babies. They almost always arrive too late.

These women and girls are among the 289,000 people around the world who will die needlessly in pregnancy this year for lack of basic health care that, in Canada, we can take for granted.

These deaths are preventable and must be stopped – and we know how to stop them.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has called a global summit in Toronto that opens Wednesday to address maternal, newborn and child health. The summit has attracted people who can make a difference. They include United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Maternal and child health experts from around the world will also attend.

Major progress has been made since Mr. Harper put the plight of pregnant women and their children atop the G8 summit Canada hosted in 2010. Yet funding is about to run out for initiatives that are substantially reducing the number of women and children dying from preventable causes.

Canada has been forthright and consistent in its dedication on this front, and we are hoping for continued Canadian leadership in saving the lives of vulnerable women and children, especially those in harder to reach areas and facing difficult circumstances like living in disaster zones or war-torn areas.

In 2000, countries around the globe agreed on eight UN Millennium Development Goals to create a better world by 2015. Among them was a commitment to reduce the under-5 child mortality rate by two-thirds and the maternal mortality rate by three-quarters.

Today, child mortality has been reduced from 12 million annually to 6.5 million. While that is a substantial reduction, we still won't reach our two-thirds goal next year and millions of children will continue to die unnecessarily, many within hours of taking their first breath.

On the maternal front, the reduction in deaths is 45 per cent, still leaving those 289,000 women who die needlessly every year. Only 11 of 125 designated countries are on track to meet the three-quarter-reduction goal by next year, and only three of those are in Africa.

The summit must ensure that we continue efforts to first achieve these minimum goals as soon as possible and then move beyond them to eliminate all preventable deaths. These efforts will also improve the lives and health of millions of women and children who barely survive pregnancy and birth now.

Training of skilled birth attendants is critical, but it is possible to reduce maternal mortality by more than 50 per cent and child mortality by about one-third through additional means. For example, a group of pregnant women in their own community can learn and share the importance of antenatal care and healthy prevention and care practices for themselves and their newborns. They create support for each other and, when there are signs of trouble, are empowered to seek help before it is too late.

Our network is also actively involved in helping communities record millions of previously anonymous births and deaths in countries around the world. Such vital statistics highlight health issues as they arise, and provide guidance for deploying scarce resources. If children are dying of measles in a village, we need to know right away.

The Toronto summit will consider enhancing such accountability measures so donors know their money is well spent, but more importantly to ensure that people at the local level have the health information they need to save lives.

In 2010, the Prime Minister announced $2.85-billion for maternal and child health over five years, ending next year. At the summit, we hope the Prime Minister will extend Canada's commitment for at least another five years. And we are asking for an additional $400-million over the five years to make sure that we save lives as quickly as possible. It can be done. It's not complicated. We just need to finish the job we started.

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