Gates throws down gauntlet ahead of child, maternal health summit

Melinda Gates calls for more funding ahead of Stephen Harper’s Toronto summit on child and maternal health

OTTAWA — An unacceptable number of newborn babies are dying in poor countries because the developed world simply isn’t investing enough money to save them, says noted philanthropist Melinda Gates.

Gates issued an international call for more funding Tuesday as she helped launch new research in the medical journal The Lancet on the plight of new mothers, babies and young children in developing countries.

The frank talk from Gates means there will be more pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make further spending commitments as he hosts a major international meeting next week on his signature aid initiative — maternal, newborn and child health.

Harper committed $2.8 billion to cause at the G8 summit Canada hosted in 2010, and is chairing a three-day international meeting in Toronto May 28-30 as a follow-up to raise awareness.

Each year 2.9 million newborn babies die around the world, while another 2.6 million are stillborn, the Lancet study concluded.

That’s half as many as in 1990, but the mortality rate is still too high, according to the 55 experts from 18 countries that contributed to Tuesday’s report.

“While the statistics about newborn babies are dire, they point to opportunity for improvement. Many newborn deaths could have been prevented with existing interventions,” Gates writes in a piece co-authored with Rwanda’s health minister, Agnes Binaghawo.

“These babies are dying not because we lack the knowledge to save them; they are dying for a lack of attention and investment.”

Gates is the co-chair of the foundation named after her and her husband, Bill. Their foundation joined six countries in contributing to Harper’s initiative in 2010.

Gates and Binaghawo argue that more money should be spent because “the evidence shows that a few inexpensive, proven interventions can go a long way.”

That includes better care for pregnant women and newborns at the time of birth and modest improvements in the care of sick newborns.

The Lancet study estimates that by 2020 it would cost about 91 cents per person to lower the annual death rate of newborns by 1.3 million, while reducing stillbirths by 530,000 each year.

“More funding is essential for change to take place in countries,” the study says.

Dr. Mickey Chopra, the chief of health for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said funding has been steadily increasing, but more money is needed.

“Within that, newborns have been relatively neglected in terms of funding, and within that stillbirths have been completely no growth in resources,” Chopra said in an interview.

The Lancet study, titled “Every Newborn,” makes no direct reference to Canada or Harper’s initiative, which the prime minister has since elevated to Canada’s “flagship” development priority.

The Harper summit has been dubbed “Saving Every Woman, Every Child.”

Harper is expected to take a very public role on the first day of next week’s summit when a panel discussion on “delivering results for women and children” is to take place.

“It is actually an objective fact that Canada has been one of the leaders in this area,” Chopra said.

The first day is also expected to focus on immunization and nutrition, two key aspects of the Harper government’s strategy for addressing the problem.

One of Canada’s major multilateral allies, the GAVI Alliance, which focuses on vaccinating children in poor countries from diseases such diarrhea and pneumonia, kicked off its own major funding drive on Tuesday.

GAVI announced that it is seeking $7.5 billion to fund its programming between 2016 and 2020. The public-private health partnership was founded in 2000, and also counts the Gates foundation as a key supporter.

GAVI said its needs the fresh infusion of funds because it says it can save five to six million lives in the coming five years, twice its previous rate.

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