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Can 16 million mothers and children be saved?

A global campaign that aims to save the lives of 16 million mothers and children over the next five years launched by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday with as much as $40 billion in commitments from world governments and private aid groups.
Ban Ki-moon
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaks during a meeting on biological diversity at United Nations headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)Seth Wenig / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A global campaign that aims to save the lives of 16 million mothers and children over the next five years launched by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday with as much as $40 billion in commitments from world governments and private aid groups.

The Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health was being announced at the end of a three-day summit to review efforts to implement anti-poverty goals adopted in 2000. These include cutting extreme poverty by half, ensuring universal primary education, halting and reversing the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and cutting child and maternal mortality.

"Women and children play a crucial role in development," Ban said in a statement. "Investing in their health is not only the right thing to do — it also builds stable, peaceful and productive societies. "

Ban has made the reduction of maternal and child deaths a personal campaign, and it has been a key topic during the summit. Worldwide every year, an estimated 8 million children die before reaching their 5th birthday, and about 350,000 women die during pregnancy or childbirth.

Even before the details were announced, the international aid organization Oxfam expressed skepticism about how much money was truly new, and how the program would be administered and held accountable.

"That kind of money would go a long way toward reaching the child and maternal health goals, but we have a big concern," said Oxfam spokeswoman Emma Seery. "Where will that money come from?

"Half of the donors cut their aid last year" amid the global economic crisis, she said. "We're just nervous that it will be governments bringing together a lot of previous commitments, and that won't mean much for poor people."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was expected at the afternoon "Every Woman, Every Child" event, along with world leaders including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the prime ministers of Ethiopia, Norway, and Tanzania. Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was also on the advance roster of speakers.

'A face to hunger and poverty'
Aid agencies overall welcomed the prospect of more money for programs that will save the lives of mothers and children.

"There is a face to hunger and poverty, and it is female," said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N.'s World Food Program. "We know that the most powerful intervention we can do is ensure women have access to food so they can build a future for their children, for themselves and for their villages."

"When we first started talking about this five years ago, there didn't seem to be any interest, very little commitment," said Dr. Flavia Bustreo. A pediatrician, Bustreo heads the World Health Organization's Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in Geneva, Switzerland, which has worked with Ban's office on the strategy in recent months.

WHO will chair the global strategy, with a progress report delivered annually to the U.N. General Assembly, she said.

Bustreo said some money could be used to pay for simple, inexpensive tools and practices that could save millions of the world's children each year.

She said the 1 million newborns who die each year through aspiration — literally drowning from fluid in the breathing passage — could have been saved with a tool that has a bulb like a turkey baster that uses suction to clear away liquids.

The lives of older children can be saved with re-hydration liquids to combat diarrhea, immunizations for childhood diseases like measles, and vitamin supplements to fight malnutrition, she said.

Improving maternal health is more difficult — and costly. Bustreo said half of all maternal deaths are caused by complications of delivery, such as obstructive labor, that require surgery.

In 2000, the U.N. set "Millennium Development Goals" that included reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015.

The commitments being announced Wednesday include a combined annual pledge of $2.7 billion announced in recent days by the non-governmental groups BRAC, Save the Children Alliance and World Vision, as well as a recent $1.8 billion commitment by the international relief organization Care to improve maternal and child health.

Other key organizations making significant commitments include the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ($1.5 billion), the U.N. Foundation ($400 million), and $200 million from Johnson & Johnson.

Many commitments are being made by poorer countries which have pledged to set aside more funds for better health care of mothers and small children within their borders.

Nigeria is pledging 2 percent of its national oil revenues for domestic health care and increasing its national health budget from 5 to 15 percent, while Tanzania is increasing its health spending from 12 to 15 percent of the national budget.

Bangladesh will set aside funds to double the percentage of births attended by a skilled health worker by 2015. and Nepal will recruit 10,000 skilled health workers and provide free maternal care to isolated communities.