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Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

By: Adam Graham


Headshot, Mark Brender, Director, PIH Canada

Adam Graham
Senior Manager,
Programs and Development,
PIH Canada

Every day millions of women, children, and adolescents die from entirely preventable causes. In a country like Haiti, only about 37 percent of women give birth under the care of a skilled attendant and about 380 mothers out of 100,000 die needlessly each year because they cannot access appropriate care for child birth. Compare that with Canada’s still unacceptably high, but comparatively low rate, of about 6 out of 100,000 births per year.

Malnutrition is the underlying contributing factor in about half of all deaths among children under 5 years old – essentially not receiving the proper nutrients because of a scarcity of food. Amongst adolescents, close to 1.5 million die each year from preventable or treatable causes including road injuries, HIV, suicides, and violence. Girls are particularly affected by violence because of their status in society and their sex and it’s estimated that ten percent of girls have experienced sexual violence before the age of 20. Those are only the reported cases and it’s likely to be much higher.

Have I thrown out too many numbers? At the beginning of this month I had the privilege to participate in the annual conference of the Canadian Partnership for Women’s and Children’s Health in Montreal and I realized pretty quickly during the conference that these numbers are one of the first steps toward the solution. To get to the bottom of why so many women, children and adolescents are dying of preventable causes, we need precise numbers that provide a clear pathway to take action. For example, 52 percent of maternal deaths are directly attributable to only three entirely preventable causes – hemorrhage (bleeding), sepsis (from an infection) and hypertension-related conditions. This means that we have the knowledge to know how to act – especially important now that we have newly-set Sustainable Development Goals that give us fairly specific targets on how to end preventable deaths amongst these groups. The trick will be ensuring that the staff, stuff, space, and systems are in place that will actually allow access to these basic, life-saving tools that so many of us take for granted in Canada. One of the main tenets for a sustainable health system on the road to universal health coverage is to ensure that the health system itself is able to deliver on all fronts in order to save lives. We simply can’t do that if, for example, the most basic infection control materials are out of stock or unavailable.

One of the most interesting speakers at the conference was a teenage girl who co-presented on her teen club in Malawi for adolescents who are living with HIV. She discussed the impact of stigma and HIV, and gave a detailed story about how HIV-related phobia in her community almost drove her to take her own life. Her narrative is not an isolated case and is reflective of a generation of teens that are growing out of the early days of the AIDS epidemic when both parents died and children were left in the care of grandparents and other caregivers. We also know that one of the biggest drivers of poor health outcomes is directly related to mental health; for adolescents that contracted HIV during childbirth, the stigma of having the disease combined with other traumas can have a major impact on health. The teen club ensured that adolescents had a place to tell their stories, access and adhere to their HIV treatment regime and become engaged in a broader movement to fight HIV stigma which is fundamental to end the epidemic.

It’s a really a unique moment in the world of maternal, child and adolescent health. Development partners are coalescing through a renewed collaboration to address the most pressing needs with global goals over the next fifteen years. Efforts are now refocused on the best possible evidence aligned with specific targets to ensure that preventable deaths are a thing of the past and that everyone has access to health care regardless of where they live. We know that these goals are attainable and we know how to get there. Partners In Health has helped prove that building health and community systems to end preventable deaths is entirely feasible. We have the goals, we have the evidence, and we need to continue to mobilize the resources to do it. Now let’s get to work.

Mark Brender Signature

Adam Graham
Senior Manager, Programs and Development
Partners In Health Canada

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