Patchy progress and widening gaps – What went wrong?
Each year 3.3 million babies – or maybe even more – are stillborn, more than 4 million die within 28 days of coming into the world, and a further 6.6 million young children die before their fifth birthday. Maternal deaths also continue unabated – the annual total now stands at 529 000 often sudden, unpredicted deaths which occur during pregnancy itself (some 68 000 as a consequence of unsafe abortion), during childbirth, or after the baby has been born – leaving behind devastated families, often pushed into poverty because of the cost of health care that came too late or was ineffective. How can it be that this situation continues when the causes of these deaths are largely avoidable? And why is it still necessary for this report to emphasize the importance of focusing on the health of mothers, newborns and children, after decades of priority status, and more than 10 years after the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development put access to reproductive health care for all firmly on the agenda?
Although an increasing number of countries have succeeded in improving the health and well-being of mothers, babies and children in recent years, the countries that started off with the highest burdens of mortality and ill-health made least progress during the 1990s. In some countries the situation has actually worsened, and worrying reversals in newborn, child and maternal mortality have taken place. Progress has slowed down and is increasingly uneven, leaving large disparities between countries as well as between the poor and the rich within countries. Unless efforts are stepped up radically, there is little hope of eliminating avoidable maternal and child mortality in all countries.
Countries where health indicators for mothers, newborns and children have stagnated or reversed have often been unable to invest sufficiently in health systems. The health districts have had difficulties in organizing access to effective care for women and children. Humanitarian crises, pervasive poverty, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic have all compounded the effect of economic downturns and the health workforce crisis. With widespread exclusion from care and growing inequalities, progress calls for massively strengthened health systems.
Technical choices are still important, though, as in the past programmes have not always pursued the best approaches to make good care accessible to all. Too often, programmes have been allowed to fragment, thus hampering the continuity of care, or have failed to give due attention to professionalizing services. Technical experience and the successes and failures of the recent past have shown how best to move forward.