Sarah Brown: How to Save Mothers’ Lives

Every other minute of every day, a woman dies in pregnancy and childbirth. A new summit in London tackles the problem.

In a summer of Olympic fun and elite sporting achievement, nations are coming together in London not just to compete for gold, but to stand together to address global challenges. One significant gathering is being hosted in the U.K. capital on Wednesday by the Global Health Policy Summit, headed by Prof. Ara Darzi in the splendor of the prestigious Guildhall.

A former U.K. heath minister, chair of the World Economic Forum’s global health group, and a pioneering robotics surgeon, Prof. Darzi is the creator of the Global Health Policy Summit. It is not the first time a health leader has called for policy-makers to deliver global solutions to the big health problems of our age, but this event is driving a new, dedicated approach to find radical answers and new collaborations.

The summit will address topics ranging from noncommunicable diseases to ageing societies. Our particular stake in the summit is the maternal-health session that is specifically taking on an assessment of lessons learned and the next critical steps to take in order to reduce maternal mortality.

Just five years ago, it was still being said that every minute of every hour of every day, a woman died in pregnancy and childbirth. The U.N. member countries had targeted this as one of the millennium development goals (MDG) to reduce world poverty by placing the mother at the heart of the world’s health—for herself, her infant, and her wider community. The laudable political and professional momentum of recent years to tackle maternal mortality has seen the number of deaths nearly halve. So there has been a moment to acknowledge that achievement, but then the reality sets in. Now every other minute of every hour of every day, a woman still dies in pregnancy and childbirth—so what comes next as we approach the 2015 MDG deadline?

Over the past few months, a truly international group of leading health leaders—ranging from FIGO, ICM, and WHO to Merck for Mothers and McKinsey, to the Gates and Carlos Slim Foundations—have been working together with the Institute for Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London to create a white paper for the summit. What has emerged is a comprehensive overview of the global picture gained from many interviews, research, and gathered data that have been painstakingly combed over to create a succinct summary of exactly where we are and what should happen next. This is not a report about what to do, but how to do it.

In order to continue to save mothers’ lives otherwise tragically lost through pregnancy problems and difficulties in childbirth, tomorrow’s checklist includes the need for high quality, desirable, affordable, and accessible healthcare—whether in the poorer parts of essentially affluent countries like Nigeria or the United States or the remote corners of impoverished Niger, or the bustling center of urban Mumbai.

Health professionals should be led by three clear priorities: family-planning needs, protection from unsafe abortions, and provision of appropriate maternal care. The clearest lesson learned is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, although the problems are similar everywhere. Instead each country needs to evolve the right maternal health “ecosystem,” balancing all the basic services and interventions to match what works at the local level.

What is essential, though, is political will and a committed government. The political will to save mothers’ lives was unlocked from the G8 in 2008 onward, and the progress made since has been rapid. It is essential that this political driving force is never halted again, and that collaborations between governments, professional organizations, NGOs and donors, and the private sector continue to flourish.

The network of health leaders that gathers in London on August 1 are taking on a great task identifying how to save even more lives and create better oppotunities for women everywhere. After that, everyone deserves a good time watching the Olympic achievements.