Attacking ‘a hidden, deadly’ issue

More than 250,000 women die each year in Africa from maternal complications, constituting 51 percent of the world’s maternal deaths. Preventing maternal and child deaths is one of the top issues for African leaders as they meet with U.S. officials this week to discuss pressing health issues in the continent.

“This is a situation that has been neglected for so long, as opposed to HIV/AIDS and malaria, which have gotten a lot of attention,” said Ted Alemayhu, founder and chairman of U.S. Doctors for Africa. “It’s a hidden, deadly issue across the continent.”


One of the summit sessions, titled “Investing in Health: Investing in Africa’s Future,” comes after a United States Agency for International Development initiative launched in June to end preventable child and maternal deaths. Acting on the Call, a $2.9 billion commitment, partners government with private entities to fund maternal and child health operations in countries around the world. African nations make up two-thirds of the priority countries in the Acting on the Call program.

“Without such an investment, the risk of a poverty and disease stricken continent will be soon a reality that certainly will affect the rest of the world,” said Djibouti Head of State and Government Ismaïl Omar Guelleh in a statement.

African heads of state showed their commitment to the maternal child health issue earlier this year at the African Union Summit when they developed a 20-year Pan-African road map to end fatalities.

“[Maternal and child health] is where we can make a visible and impactful difference,” Alemayhu said.

As the most deadly Ebola outbreak in history ravages 10 nations in western Africa, health security and epidemic response will be another hot-button issue at the session.

Leaders from the Republic of Sierra Leone, the Republic of Liberia and the Republic of Guinea who were initially going to attend the summit, canceled their plans due to efforts to contain the outbreak.

Ending the HIV/AIDS crisis is also on the discussion agenda. According to a Pew Research Center report, preventing and treating the virus is considered a top priority by an average of 72 percent of residents in six African nations with representatives attending the summit.

“The AIDS pandemic in southern Africa is the primary cause of death for adolescents, and the primary killer of young women,” said Ambassador Deborah Birx, the global AIDS coordinator at the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (Pepfar).

While HIV/AIDS has received significant attention over the past decade, Birx says that 28,600 children and adults die each week due to the epidemic, while 41,100 more become infected.

“In the last eleven years of Pepfar’s existence, we’ve made really groundbreaking and extraordinary progress,” Birx said. “This program is saving lives and giving hope by transforming the trajectory of the epidemic. We’ve made tremendous progress, but there’s more work to do.”

“Clinics have desperate need for equipment and materials,” Alemayhu said. “One doctor to 100,000 people is the perfect recipe for disaster. What is the legacy being left to Africa if generation after generation is left at the risk of death?”