With the advent of the few Ebola cases that have emerged in the U.S., Americans and the global community can and should turn their attention to the plight of fragile health care infrastructure in poor countries. This outbreak is a stark reminder that our own health and prosperity is directly linked to that of the developing world. Foreign aid is a catalyst for building healthier families and communities — and in turn, helping our own.
Too often, health systems in poor countries are ill equipped to handle public health crises, or even provide basic primary health care services including, immunizations for children; the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria; and other life-saving interventions such as access to contraceptives.
The Ebola crisis is showing us once again how critical it is to invest in functioning public health systems in developing nations, so they are able to increase access to the information and tools people need to protect their own health and the health of their loved ones. Importantly, these systems must be designed to reach and meet the needs of women and girls.
Two years ago, leaders from around the world came together to commit to an ambitious goal: By 2020, 120 million more women and girls in the world’s poorest countries would have access to the information and tools they need to make the best decisions, harmonious with their values and beliefs, in planning their families.
We are already seeing results. Today, Family Planning 2020 — the movement that carries this global effort forward — launched its second annual report on progress made toward this goal.
In 2013, more than 8.4 million additional women and girls had access to contraceptives compared to 2012, across 69 of the world’s poorest countries. Access to contraceptives averted an estimated 77 million unintended pregnancies. And the lives of more than 125,000 women and girls were saved from complications related to unintended pregnancies.
Hope Through Healing Hands partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation one year ago to champion a spectrum of issues related to maternal, newborn and child health, with a special emphasis on healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, or international family planning. If women have access to an array of contraceptive methods, including fertility awareness, we can save and improve the lives of millions.
Nearly 1 in 39 women die in Africa from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, making it a leading cause of preventable death. Yet if women can better time their pregnancies between the ages of 18 and 24, they can exponentially affect their chances of survival. For instance, women who give birth between the ages of 20 and 24 are 10 to 14 times more likely to survive than those who have babies when they are younger. And by giving women the means to space the births of their children by at least three years, newborns would be twice as likely to survive their first year. We could drastically reduce maternal and infant mortality with better access to information and services for healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies.
With a focus on the mother-child orbit of health, we cut to the nexus of global health challenges to address extreme poverty, access to education, gender equality and infectious disease. Economically, healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies, and access to contraceptives, is one of the best investments a country can make in its future. Contraceptives are cost-effective and deliver big savings in health care costs and social programs. For each U.S. dollar spent on helping women plan their families, governments can save up to $6 on health, housing, water, and other public services.
The Ebola outbreak is a tragedy and has already claimed the lives of thousands. It will take serious intervention to stop its further spread and interrupt transmission. As we consider how best to respond, let’s also consider how best to strengthen the infrastructure of health systems in poor countries, and how to provide simple interventions, like family planning, to save the lives of millions of mothers and children around the world.
Bill Frist, M.D., is a former senator from Tennessee. Jenny Eaton Dyer, Ph.D., is the executive director of Hope Through Healing Hands.