Africa must focus on maternal, child health - AU

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Addis Ababa - Countries in Africa should promote maternal, infant and child health and report on progress, in order to curb high death rates on the continent, according to the African Union (AU).

"There are continents where women give birth and it is a pleasant experience because they are bringing life," said AU Commissioner for Social Affairs Bience Gawana.

"In our continent, unfortunately, that is not always the case. Women also bring death to themselves and their children."

Progress on the promotion of maternal, infant and child health featured during the 12th African Union Heads of State and Government Summit, which ended on Wednesday.

Ms Gawana said the AU had agreed to launch a continent-wide campaign to address the issue.

"We will launch a movement to promote maternal and child health in the continent. It will be an advocacy campaign ... together with partners like UNFPA [the UN Population Fund] and UNICEF [the UN Children's Fund]," she said.

Africa has some of the highest rates of maternal, infant and child mortality. More than 500 000 women die in childbirth or from complications during pregnancy each year, according to UNICEF.

A woman in sub-Saharan Africa has a 1:16 chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth, compared to a 1: 4 000 chance in developed countries.

The figures for child mortality are equally grim. According to UNICEF's State of the World's Children report for 2008, nearly 10 million children die before their fifth birthday - half of them in Africa.

"For the last two [AU] summits, we have been asked by the heads of state to look at the status of the promotion of maternal, infant and child health in Africa.

"Much more needs to be done, to reduce maternal and child mortality on the continent," Ms Gawana said.

A report submitted by the Commission to the Addis Ababa meeting noted: "One of the main challenges in the promotion of maternal, infant and child health and development is access to health care facilities and services, especially at primary health delivery level and [in] rural areas."

On the high cost of drugs, it said: "Africa's difficulties in meeting the health needs of the population - particularly of mothers, newborns and children - is constrained by limited availability of drugs at affordable prices.

"This situation has been aggravated by high costs related to the importation and distribution of drugs."

Ms Gawana said "simple things like making sure that women have access to a birth attendant" could help reduce complications during birth.

The report said there had been some promising developments. "Recent developments in information and communication technology to facilitate access to health are promising and the AU commission is encouraging member states to harness emerging opportunities.

"The contribution of this to the improvement of maternal, infant and child health in Africa will be paramount."

It hailed the AU's proposed pharmaceuticals manufacturing plan, which has been adopted by Heads of State and government, as a strategy to help Africa produce its own drugs and develop medical facilities.

The plan also envisages the manufacture of drugs for major diseases such as HIV and AIDS, TB and malaria.