Access to reproductive health services and the ability of women to plan the timing and number of their pregnancies is increasingly being recognized as a key not only to the health of women, families and communities, but to the prosperity of nations.
The importance of that is reflected in the fact that for the first time, reproductive health issues are included this year in the agenda of the annual GBCHealth Conference.
The conference, which got under way in New York on Thursday, focuses on the role of international businesses in promoting global health. GBCHealth is a coalition of more than 200 member organisations and companies committed to investing in health.
With less than 1,000 days left to meet the 2015 Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations, the conference is specifically addressing the need to work harder to reach the difficult health-related goals concerning reducing child mortality, improving maternal health and combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.
Progress has been made, but not enough. For example, in 1990, 12 million children died before the age of 12. That number is at about 7 million today, but the goal is to reach 4 million by 2015.
Maternal deaths, which stood at 600,000 annually in 1990, are down to 250,000, still short of the goal of 150,000 by 2015.
Similarly, HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are on the decline, but much more work has to be done to eradicate these diseases.
According to World Bank data, the incentive for business to promote health is great and the message is simple. “If you invest in health, your economies will grow,” said Aigboje Aig-Imoukhuede, chief executive officer of Access Bank and co-chair of the GBCHealth board of directors.
To that end, the conference devoted its first session to family planning, calling it “a best buy for global health”.
If the unmet needs of the 220 million women globally who want, but can’t access, contraceptives were met, research indicates there would be 1.1 million fewer infant deaths, 79,000 fewer women dying in childbirth and three times fewer babies born infected with HIV.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, every $1 invested in family planning can save up to $9 in other development costs. On average, that $1 saves $2.64 in education costs, $0.25 in immunizations, $1.02 in water and sanitation and $1.68 in maternal health services.
In short, the current unmet need for modern contraceptives in developing nations could be satisfied by investing $4.1 billion, which would save $5.7 billion annually in maternal and newborn healthcare costs, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Significantly, this year’s GBCHealth Frontline Hero Award was presented Thursday to Christine Kaseba-Sata, the first lady of Zambia and for 30 years an obstetrician and gynecologist who has made women’s reproductive health one of her signature campaigns.
“The burden of disease in southern Africa bears the face of women and children,” said Kaseba-Sata, who described being “constantly haunted” by the patients she has lost to highly preventable conditions, many of them pregnancy-related.
As a result of her efforts, more than 100,000 Zambian women have been screened for cervical cancer, the country has made a significant investment in family planning, and plans are underway to treat 50,000 girls with the HPV vaccine.
That is notable because it is estimated that 80 percent of preventable cervical cancer deaths occur in Africa - a number expected to reach 98 percent by 2020, said Dr Brian Brink, chief medical officer of the mining company Anglo American in South Africa. He noted that “in developing countries less than 5 percent of women have ever had a Pap smear.”