Rounding out the evening's panels, renowned philanthropist Melinda Gates issued a call to arms to improve maternal and neonatal health worldwide—and declared it a major new focus for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In recent years, the Foundation—the world’s largest private charity, with an endowment of over $33 billion—has become a global health juggernaut, pouring billions each year into research and treatment of diseases such as malaria, rotovirus and polio that have largely disappeared from the developed world but continue to kill millions in poorer areas.
Now, the Foundation is turning its influence—and investing $1.5 billion—toward mothers and newborns, a direction that Gates highlighted during the conference. Talking to legendary broadcaster Charlie Rose, Gates said, “There are so many women who die in maternal death and childbirth, deaths that are inexcusable…if you think about a child’s health, it’s related to the woman’s health. If you want to lift up a society, you have to lift up both of those things.”
Sky-high maternal and neonatal mortality rates continue to plague developing countries: 3 million newborns die in their first month of life, said Gates. It’s that initial, precarious month that had long plagued global health advocates. “We couldn’t solve that piece of the puzzle, that first 28 days,” said Gates. Yet most of these neonatal deaths can be prevented through “incredibly simple things”—including exclusive and immediate breastfeeding to gird the baby’s immune system; sheltering the newborn from cold and extreme temperatures; and keeping the umbilical cord clean to prevent tetanus and other infections. Such measures are “a different kind of innovation—a cultural innovation,” said Gates. “Those are huge things that will change that death rate of those 3 million children.”
The focus on mothers and children reflects the basic focus on the Foundation: “that all lives have equal value,” said Gates. “When you go to the developing world … you say to yourself, I could have been born in this circumstance. There’s no reason I was born in the United States and not one of these other places in the world. You think about the lengths you would go through to keep your child alive,” she said. “When [I] go to the developing world, I’m so, so touched by the women…It’s heartbreaking the lengths these women go to.”