Progress on Health, but Not Fast Enough

Melinda French Gates visits Mbagathi Hospital to better understand the treatment of severe pneumonia. She is accompanied by Dr. Fred Were, Kenya Pediatric Association, Dr. Anthony Scott, Wellcome Trust, Kilifi, Dr. Loyse Mutae, Chief of Pediatrics, Mbagathi Hospital and Dr. Silas Agutu, Staff Physician, Mbagathi Hospital. Mbagathi is one of the busiest public hospitals in Nairobi, and is the referral center for patients from the Kibera slum.
Photo Credit: © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Frederic Courbet

Let's start with the good news -- because there's a lot of it.

Since 1990, the world has cut extreme poverty, child mortality and malaria deaths by half. We've nearly halved maternal mortality, and new HIV infections are down 40 percent. In countless ways, people around the world are living healthier, better lives than ever before.

There are many reasons for this progress. Technology has advanced. Economies have grown. But one of the most important factors is also incredibly simple: the world made progress because it decided to.

By setting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and then rallying to meet them, the global community proved that, when we aim high and work together, incredible things are possible.

Representatives from around the globe are meeting in New York this month to lay out the successors to the MDGs, known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Bill and I believe that one of the most important ways we can build for a healthier, more prosperous tomorrow is by working together to achieve the goal known as SDG 3, which aims to "ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages."

SDG 3 is an ambitious goal, and it should be. Improving health outcomes is the cornerstone of progress -- especially when it comes to improving the health and wellbeing of women and children. When you invest in the health of a woman and her child, they are able to take advantage of educational and economic opportunities, reaping long-lasting benefits for their family, community and nation.

Over the past 15 years, we have learned what it takes to save and improve the lives of women and children around the world. But knowing what it takes isn't the same as doing it. Now it's time to speed that progress along.

For example, we know that certain solutions -- such as vaccines to protect against childhood's deadliest diseases, or oral-rehydration therapies to treat diarrheal diseases -- have helped cut child mortality in half.

By continuing to invest in these and other proven interventions -- especially those aimed at saving newborns during their vulnerable first month -- we can use the next 15 years to cut the child-mortality rate by half again.

But let's face it: What we really want for children -- for our own children, for anyone's children -- is not simply to survive, but to thrive. That's why we'll also be investing in ways to ensure that kids everywhere get the good nutrition they need for a healthy start on life.

When children lack the micronutrients they need to develop in body and mind, it diminishes their ability to learn in school, and it reduces their potential as adults. But when they have the right nutrition from the beginning, it improves prospects for entire communities.

We can achieve this by investing in better, more nutritious crops; by promoting immediate and exclusive breastfeeding to improve nutrition outcomes for infants; and by fortifying staple foods -- something that costs just pennies a day.

Another vital part of the equation is improving health outcomes for women. Even though we've nearly cut maternal mortality in half, the number of women dying in labor and delivery is still unbearably high. Every day, nearly 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In Malawi, which has one of the highest maternal-mortality rates in the world, nearly everyone I met had lost a woman close to them.

But again, there is good news, because we know what we need to do to start saving more women's lives. We can start by ensuring that more women have access to the information and tools they need to time and space their pregnancies, which saves lives by reducing the likelihood of pregnancy-related complications.

Improving women's access to quality care is also important. In the critical moments surrounding labor and delivery, the presence of a skilled birth attendant can mean the difference between life and death for a woman and her newborn. By improving and strengthening local health systems, we can also help expand access to lifesaving care before, after and during delivery.

Then there are the enormous gains that result from investing in women's health throughout their lives. When women are healthy, they are better equipped to engage in work, support their families, and participate in their communities.

This has significant implications for the fight against extreme poverty. Our foundation is putting an increasing emphasis on the unique role of women in advancing global health and development.

For example, if female farmers across the developing world had the same access to agricultural resources that men currently have, yields could increase by as much as 30 percent per household. This shift alone could have an enormous impact on the health and prosperity of the world's poorest communities.

I like to call myself an impatient optimist. I'm an optimist because I believe that when it comes to the problems facing the world's poorest people, incredible progress is possible. We spent the last 15 years proving that. But I'm impatient because not all of that progress is occurring fast enough. By focusing on SDG 3 and investing in proven solutions, we can turn our shared impatience into action.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post, "What's Working: Sustainable Development Goals," in conjunction with the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The proposed set of milestones will be the subject of discussion at the UN General Assembly meeting on Sept. 25-27, 2015 in New York. The goals, which will replace the UN's Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015), cover 17 key areas of development -- including poverty, hunger, health, education, and gender equality, among many others. As part of The Huffington Post's commitment to solutions-oriented journalism, this What's Working SDG blog series will focus on one goal every weekday in September. This post addresses Goal 3.

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