Let’s end preventable maternal and child deaths worldwide in the next decade
Less than a year after giving birth to twin boys, Melanie Atieno’s health worker delivered troubling news: both of Melanie’s sons were malnourished. Melanie felt frustrated. She did not know how to get her sons the nutrients they needed to thrive, and she was not alone – even when many mothers in the developing world have enough food for their children, the traditional diet lacks important nutrients like Vitamin D and iron. In Kenya, where Melanie and her family live, over one-quarter of all children under five are stunted, a sign of chronic malnutrition.
This trend is reflected in too many developing countries around the world. Nearly half of all child deaths worldwide are related to malnutrition. That amounts to nearly 2.4 million preventable deaths of children under the age of five every year. Children suffering from poor nutrition are more vulnerable to illnesses in their early years and into adulthood. Expectant mothers who are malnourished are at higher risk of bearing malnourished children, perpetuating an intergenerational cycle. Iron deficiency anemia, which is associated with malnutrition, contributes to 1 in 5 maternal deaths.
While these dire statistics underscore how serious the issue remains, there is reason for hope. Over the past few decades, the world has made tremendous progress in reducing maternal and child mortality and improving global nutrition thanks to the United States’ leadership and a bipartisan commitment by Congress and multiple presidential administrations. In 2000, for example, about 200 million children five years old and younger were stunted as a result of chronic malnutrition in early childhood. By 2018, that number had dropped by nearly 50 million children, even though the global population increased.
A vital program that has contributed to this success is a USAID neighborhood-based approach that helps mothers learn to prepare, cook, and feed their children nutritionally-balanced meals with locally available food items. This program helped Melanie Atieno in Kenya learn which foods would provide her sons with the nutrients they need and empowered her to improve their health and nutrition. She was able to help both her sons rise from malnourished to healthy weight status. Of the 116 children from two counties in Kenya who participated in the initial program with Melanie’s sons, about 92 percent reached their recommended weights. Due to this widespread success, USAID has expanded the approach to other counties throughout the African continent facing high rates of malnutrition.
In an effort to build on this success and improve the health of mothers and children around the world, we recently introduced a resolution on global nutrition that applauds the USAID Multi-Sectoral Nutrition Strategy. This approach examines more effective ways to address both the direct and underlying causes of malnutrition. We know that good nutrition in early childhood saves lives and lays the foundation for healthy physical and cognitive growth and development. Investing in nutrition during the thousand days from a pregnancy’s beginning to a child’s second birthday is among the most cost-effective ways to strengthen human health and well-being. Studies also show that improved nutrition can increase a person’s lifetime earnings by 46 percent. Every dollar invested in a child’s early nutrition generates as much as $166 in lifetime benefits related to better health and productivity.
We also recently reintroduced our bipartisan Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2019, which aims to reach mothers and children with simple, proven, cost-effective interventions, led by the United States, that we know will help them survive. A concentrated effort could end preventable maternal and child deaths worldwide in the next decade.
Despite modest increases over the last few years, our nation’s spending on global health programs remains less than a tenth of a percent of the entire federal budget. For several years, we have urged our colleagues to increase funding for programs that have a demonstrated impact on maternal and child health. These low-cost and effective interventions have helped save the lives of 50 million children, and this year, 35 senators from both parties joined us in the effort to help save even more.
Funding for maternal and child health and global nutrition is among the most cost-effective, life-saving investments the United States can make. Assistance can take many forms, from education programs to providing specific foods and health care. When children and mothers thrive, so do the countries they live in—leading to greater economic and political stability for everyone. We encourage our colleagues in both the House and Senate to support continued U.S. leadership in these efforts. It is both the right and the smart thing to do.
Collins is the senior senator from Maine and Coons is the junior senator from Delaware.
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