GENEVA — 2010 was the year when maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) finally got some of the attention it deserves.
It was the signature issue of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at his G8 Summit in Muskoka where a $7.3 billion, five-year commitment was made through the Muskoka Initiative. It was a major focus of the U.N. Summit on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), culminating in a $40 billion Global Strategy on Women’s and Children’s Health. And it was touted as a principal element of the Obama Administration’s Global Health Initiative (GHI).
A lot of things have changed in a year. Not much has happened with GHI since last year, least of all in MNCH. U.S. congressional Republicans almost succeeded in turning back many of the gains made in recent years through the Fiscal Year 2011 budget wrangling but ultimately failed in reinstating the Global Gag Rule and defunding UNFPA and Planned Parenthood (but now FY 2012 budget talks are looming, and it all starts anew). French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the host of the 2011 G8 and G20 summits, has said nothing about MNCH so far — or really anything about global health — despite its importance at the 2010 G8 and despite the fact that his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, spoke out publicly and strongly on the issue at the 2009 G8 in Italy.
Tomorrow, the 64th World Health Assembly, the annual meeting of the world’s health ministers, opens here with many issues to consider, including the following “technical and health matters” related to MNCH listed on the provisional agenda:
- Health-related MDGs
- Health systems strengthening
- Global immunization: vision and strategy
- Infant and young child nutrition: implementation plan
- Child injury prevention
- Working towards universal coverage of MNCH interventions
- Female genital mutilation
- Strategy for integrating gender analysis and action into work of the WHO
These are all critical issues to the health of women and children (and society at large) in all of the 193 member countries of the WHO. But whether all of the pontification and passing of resolutions that take place here in the next week makes any difference at all depends on the extent to which the health ministers and their country delegations take these issues to heart, with real resources and supportive policy change.
Support from the WHO, other U.N. agencies and the donor community is helpful but not indispensable. Country ownership and, more importantly, country commitment is.
The timing of all this is propitious: The World Health Assembly is well-positioned to send a strong signal to the G8 leaders, who gather May 26-27 in Deauville, France, that the health of their newborns, children and women is not only a moral imperative, but a necessary pre-requisite for the economic development of their societies. To that end, the WHA should do more to make the economic and development case for MNCH, and to show that it will benefit society beyond the health of their most vulnerable, as important as that is.