Africa: Why women’s health matters for everyone’s future

Maternal health, which refers to women’s health during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period, is facing a worrying trend worldwide, according to WHO Africa.

Seven out of 10 maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 287,000 women globally lost their lives due to maternal causes, according to a report by the World Health Organization (WHO). The majority of these deaths, a staggering 70%, occur in sub-Saharan Africa. The main causes of these preventable deaths include pre-existing medical conditions that worsen during pregnancy, high blood pressure, unsafe abortions, excessive bleeding, obstructed labor and infections.

A worrying trend in maternal health worldwide, according to the WHO, is that a woman dies during childbirth or pregnancy approximately every two minutes. The UN agency warns that without significant progress towards the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to reduce maternal mortality, over a million more women could tragically lose their lives by 2030.

“Despite global progress, Africa continues to have disproportionately high maternal mortality rates. While the global average is 152 deaths per 100,000 live births, some African nations, including Chad, Nigeria and South Sudan, report rates exceeding 1,000 per 100,000 live births.” said Professor Samba Sow, former Minister of Health for Mali and currently Director General of the Center for Vaccine Development (CVD).

Sow said the infant mortality rate also remains alarmingly high in Africa.

By 2022, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 57% of global under-5 deaths despite representing only 30% of global live births, WHO reports. The region also had the highest neonatal mortality rate in the world, with 27 deaths per 1,000 live births. This means that a newborn in sub-Saharan Africa is 11 times more likely to die within the first month of life compared to a newborn in the safest areas, such as Australia and New Zealand.

“When a mother dies during childbirth, the chance of her baby living to see their first birthday drops to 37%,” Professor Sow said. “We need to address this issue as soon as possible to accelerate progress towards the SDGs.”

More than just a funding problem

In addition to funding constraints, several significant challenges impede progress across Africa in maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) care.

“While it is true that MNCH and family planning products receive significantly less funding compared to other areas of health, despite a greater burden of disease – about 3-5 times more – the challenges extend beyond just financial constraints,” he said.

“We don’t see coordinated product procurement through a defined global facility,” Professor Sow said. “This lack of coordination results in stockouts, higher prices and limited access to essential supplies, severely impacting the availability of life-saving resources.”

“In many of our countries, we are also dealing with multiple and overlapping crises, including challenging economic situations with very little room for manoeuvre,” he added.

“To accelerate progress towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals on neonatal and maternal mortality rates, our governments need to make investments that will bring major benefits to society and the economy. This means investing in primary health systems, a health that fit for purpose workforce and innovative products that help us meet the needs of more women, bring care closer to home and save the lives of women and babies,” Professor Sow said.

Building robust health systems and improving outcomes in Mali

Global trends in maternal, neonatal and child health (MNCH) have shown significant improvement, with a remarkable 34% decrease in maternal mortality between 2000 and 2020. However, this has been set back by the pandemic, which affected progress, particularly among low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), where nearly 95% of all maternal deaths occurred in 2020.

Professor Sow said that targeted investment in MNCH plays a critical role in building a robust health system capable of sustaining long-term health improvements for mothers and newborns.

“In Mali, efforts to expand health facilities and deploy mobile health units have brought critical services closer to those in need,” Professor Sow said. “This has significantly reduced the distance and time required to receive care.”

“We have also seen significant improvements in maternal and neonatal outcomes through the training of midwives and community health workers. These trained professionals can manage complications during childbirth and provide essential neonatal care, leading to better survival rates,” he said. “Midwives are key to our efforts. They can provide 90% of women’s health care, and well-trained midwives working in a fully functional environment can help prevent two-thirds of all maternal and newborn deaths.”

Professor Sow said that educating communities about the importance of MNCH services and encouraging their use can also lead to better health outcomes, adding that in Mali, community health programs involving local leaders and using culturally sensitive approaches increased acceptance and uptake of maternal and neonatal health services. services.

Investing in women’s health boosts economies

The McKinsey Health Institute, in partnership with the World Economic Forum Center for Health and Healthcare, unveiled ground-breaking research in Davos on the health and economic benefits of investing in women’s health. The report, titled “Closing the Women’s Health Gap: A $1 Billion Opportunity to Improve Lives and Economies,” reveals that women spend 25% more time in poor health compared to men. The report found that addressing the women’s health gap could add years to lives and lives to years — and potentially boost the global economy by $1 trillion annually by 2040. The report estimates that women could gain an average of seven extra healthy days a year, which means that for over 500 days throughout a woman’s lifetime.

“Healthy women are more likely to participate in the workforce,” Professor Sow said. “This increased participation increases productivity and drives economic growth.”

“Why is this important at this moment?” he asks.

“Our economies face numerous challenges and we simply cannot afford to lose women and children to ill health. This is a critical investment that will yield significant long-term dividends with ripple effects that benefit us all.”

Dr. Rasa Izadnegahdar, who leads the maternal, newborn, child nutrition and health portfolio within the Gender Equality Division at the Gates Foundation, said that harnessing innovative technologies and low-cost solutions holds enormous potential to improve MNCH care, especially in remote regions. He says: “Nearly 80% of the maternal and neonatal burden is concentrated in 30 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Too often, where you live and the quality of care you receive determine whether life begins or ends at birth.”

“Investments in innovations ranging from breakthrough technologies to low-cost, high-impact solutions—tools like AI-enabled wearable ultrasound, IV iron, multiple micronutrient supplements, and more—are driving advances in maternal and child health and can help bridge the current divide ,” says Dr. Izadnegahdar.

A $4 life saving package

A landmark study published by researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the University of Birmingham identified a potentially game-changing solution known as E-MOTIVE. This new approach could significantly reduce deaths from childbirth-related bleeding.

The four-country trial involved over 200,000 women and showed a 60% reduction in severe postpartum bleeding through a simple bundle of WHO-recommended medications that cost just $4 per woman.

“There are 4-5 products such as oxytocin, misoprostol, tranexamic acid, heat stable carbetocin and a calibrated cap that a recent clinical trial with over 200,000 women in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania showed a 60% reduction in heavy bleeding These affordable products , which costs about $4 for the full package, is recommended by the WHO, included in almost all countries’ lists of essential medicines, and is well known by providers,” said Dr. Izadnegahdar.

“Solutions such as the simple and affordable tool called a ‘calibrated obstetric drape’ used to treat postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) are game-changers. This drape, along with WHO-recommended treatment bundles, allows trained obstetricians to monitor and measure blood loss in real time, helping them quickly identify PPH and potentially save lives,” said Dr. Izadnegahdar.

“Our analysis has shown that these interventions that tackle maternal and neonatal mortality have the potential to avert around 1.9 million cumulative deaths in low- and middle-income countries by 2030, especially when offered in bundles,” he said.

Future goals

“We must invest in strong primary health systems and leverage new constituencies and partnerships to maximize impact. Investments in primary health systems and a trained, resourceful health workforce, including midwives, increase health system efficiency and improve health equity,” Dr. Izadnegahdar said. “We also need politicians, the private sector and philanthropists to work together to fund existing women’s health products and push new products into pipelines.”

“If we invest in a robust health workforce, mobilize new funding for maternal care, and scale up the use of proven tools, we can save 1,000 mothers’ lives every day—that means two million lives saved by the end of the decade. That’s two million women , who will continue to create stronger families – families spared unimaginable heartache. Two million more women who will contribute to the economy, shape their communities and enrich our world,” concludes Dr. Izadnegahdar.

Professor Sow concluded: “When women and girls have access to the healthcare and nutrition they need to stay healthy, the freedom to make reproductive choices and the opportunity to pursue their ambitions, we unlock a cycle of prosperity, that benefits everyone.”

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