October 16, 2012

Maternal and Child Health: Enhancing the lives of millions of Nigerians

By Prof. Babatunde Osotimehin

Within the hour in which you read this article, nearly 20 women will die in Africa. Those deaths will not occur from road accidents or flooding.  They will not arise from sickness or war.  Instead, they will happen to women in the prime of their lives through complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

Sadly, those 444 women will lose their lives on the way to giving life; a carnage that is even more remarkable because it is avoidable.

These deaths are taking place despite the fact that every African nation made a solemn commitment to reduce maternal death when they pledged their support to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Nigeria’s maternal death rate is Africa’s highest. It is second in the world only to India’s. In fact, while Nigeria represents only 2 per cent of the world’s population, it accounts for over 10 per cent of the world’s maternal deaths.

UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and its partners are working together to help African leaders deliver a future where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

At country level, UNFPA is pleased to note that Nigeria’s Saving One Million Lives (SOML) initiative is improving health outcomes by facilitating the delivery of life-saving medicines.

Nigerians obtaining free healthcare services during a medical mission \exercise recently.

Survey of modern contraceptives
However, the National Survey of Modern Contraceptives and Essential Life-Saving Maternal and Reproductive Health Medicines in Public Health Facilities, which was conducted by the Federal Ministry of Health and the National Population Commission in December 2011 in 567 health facilities, reported that while there was increased availability of reproductive health medicines, key stocks of basic life-saving medicines for maternal health were all in short supply.

To its credit, the Nigerian Government has continued to work in collaboration with partners to support maternal and child health at all levels to achieve its goals and to advance efforts to achieve MDGs 4, 5 and 6.

But if we are to really deliver for women and girls, we need effective policies, innovative financial mechanisms, enhanced accountability, aligned and transparent budgets, and systems and programmes.

We also need dedicated people who will work towards clear and measurable targets to improve maternal health, and our efforts must be coordinated for maximum efficiency.

Most of all, we need sustained commitment, and the support of leaders like President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, who is the co-chair of the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children.

As co-vice-chair of the Commission, UNFPA wants to ensure access to the critical supplies needed to save women and children. We are helping increase financial and political commitment to the implementation of its recommendations, with strong support from leaders in the Global South, especially the Government of Nigeria.

We believe we have a strong ally in this Government because President Jonathan offered his generous commitment in New York in September, when he spoke about the forthcoming high-level meeting this October in Abuja to discuss the Commission’s recommendations.

Their implementation is part of UNFPA’s broader mandate as the UN’s principal global inter-governmental organization addressing issues of reproductive and maternal health, including voluntary family planning.

Achieving this vision will change the lives of millions of women and young people all over the world. Yet, support for these efforts is shrinking at a critical time, when the world population has surpassed 7 billion, and with close to 2 billion young people entering their reproductive years.

Some 222 million women currently have an unmet need for family planning in developing countries. Fulfilling this unmet need would cost $3.6 billion annually, but current data shows that this investment would actually lower the cost of maternal and newborn health services by $5.1 billion, resulting in a net total savings of $1.5 billion.

UNFPA has also taken the lead in efforts to increase access to female condoms as part of its work to foster high-impact interventions.

Condoms, both male and female, are currently the most available technology to prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as well as unintended pregnancies among sexually active people.

But female condoms, in particular, are hard to find.  Its ready availability on a global scale is a challenge that the international community, political leaders and civil society must urgently address.

The challenge before us all is to work together if we are to improve the well-being of women and children and help ensure Nigeria reaches the MDGs by 2015. To that end, we at UNFPA are calling upon all stakeholders, from government leaders to health-care workers to NGOs, to make voluntary family planning available to every Nigerian.

This will make a positive contribution to Nigeria’s economic development. But even more importantly, it will significantly enhance life prospects and save millions of women and children.

Professor Osotimehin is a United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.