Bipartisanship saves lives

When parents in America think about their children turning five, sending them off to kindergarten for the first time can be stressful. But if you live in the developing world, your biggest worry is whether your children will even live to see their fifth birthday.

But that is changing, and this year six million fewer children will die before their 5th birthday than in 1990.  To put that in perspective, that’s 2 million more children than are even in kindergarten in America today.  Driving that change is an unparalleled reduction in deaths and sickness from pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, HIV/AIDS, malaria, polio and neglected tropical diseases.

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This is a global sea change, and if it surprises you, you are not alone. Relatively few Americans are aware of this remarkable story, much less the role the United States and many other global actors played in making it happen.

Americans can be proud that these unprecedented advances would not have happened without our involvement as the largest single donor to global health and working in historic collaboration with the other governments, multilateral institutions, local entities, NGOs, civic groups, faith and business communities, universities and philanthropies.

As the majority and minority leaders of the Senate in 2003 when the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, was created, we know firsthand how pivotal the U.S. role was in one of the biggest pieces of the global health puzzle.

Through PEPFAR – which President George W. Bush initiated with vision and strength, and President Obama has worked hard to continue – the U.S. led the international community by providing tens of billions of dollars to stop the spread of HIV, giving appropriate care to the millions ravaged by AIDS and keeping them alive with anti-retroviral and other interventions.

PEPFAR is one of the crowning examples of how American resolve and leadership can bring about an enormous impact with a relatively small portion of our national budget. It shows that Democrats and Republicans can actually agree on historic health initiatives, not only on HIV/AIDS, but also in tackling malaria, vaccines, clean water and other smart and effective interventions. That same collaboration of compassion can continue to save millions of lives in the future.   

The improved child survival rates are so startling they are hard to believe at first glance. According to a 2013 UNICEF report, the global mortality rate of children under five years old dropped by 47 percent, from 90 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 48 per 1,000 in 2012. In some regions, the decline in under-five mortality was even steeper– as high as 65 percent in both the East Asia and Pacific and the Latin America and Caribbean regions.

A large portion of the progress came in much of the last decade, not coincidentally after the historic international commitment to the Millennium Development Goals. UNICEF estimates that, as compared to 12 years ago, today 700,000 fewer children die of pneumonia, and 600,000 fewer children die of measles.

Not only did deaths decline, so did sicknesses. Polio cases have decreased by more than 99 percent since 1988, when the disease was endemic in 125 countries. Today, polio is in only three countries. That is nearly all-out eradication of a dreaded malady that it seemed would never go away.

Encouraged as we all should be about the successes so far, there remain 6.6 million children under five who will not reach their fifth birthdays this year, dying mainly from preventable diseases. That is just not acceptable. Without a similar commitment by the U.S. and other international partners in the foreseeable future, we risk squandering the gains of the last 25 years and missing the opportunity to go even further in the next 25. We must keep driving the momentum that got global health to this point.

Some worry the commitment could wane, as Congress has struggled of late to achieve bipartisan consensus on much of anything and, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, a majority of Americans prefer to limit our international engagement to take care of problems at home.

Based on our experience with PEPFAR and other global health initiatives, we are convinced members of Congress from both sides of the aisle remain united around the small, but smart, investments in global health that have historically yielded extraordinary results.

And this week, businesses, NGO, faith, civic and philanthropic leaders are increasing their own investments, coming together to affirm their commitments of more than $2 billion of private resources to invest in ensuring children survive and thrive beyond their fifth birthday.

The world knows what works to increase child survival rates, and we can do this.  But doing it will require continue bipartisan cooperation and the energetic grassroots efforts that made the last 25 years of progress possible.

Daschle served South Dakota in the U.S. Senate from 1987 to 2005 and was the Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003. Frist served Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007 and was Majority Leader from 2003 to 2007.

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