Guest Contributor: Conrad Person, Director of Corporate Contributions, Johnson & Johnson
As a record-setting 3,000 delegates from more than 111 countries gathered last week in Durban, South Africa for the 2011 International Confederation of Midwives Congress, I believe that we are witnessing a “golden moment” for the global campaign to realize the right of every woman to have access to the best possible health care during pregnancy and childbirth.
Two things give me hope. First, a new analysis from the United Nations Population Fund verifies what we’ve known for decades – only by expanding access to quality midwifery services, especially in the world’s most needy countries, can we curb maternal and newborn mortality. Second, the groundbreaking Millennium Cities Initiative (MCI) is demonstrating what is possible when we focus on improving health in the world’s poorest cities.
This “golden moment” was on full display on a recent blazing hot afternoon in the Jamestown section of Accra, Ghana. With the Jamestown Lighthouse looming in the background, I was reminded that this Ga fishing community was once the heart of historic Accra. But now, it is a poor neighborhood in a city where the mean household income is less than $4 U.S. a day. In a brick courtyard, about 300 women wearing the distinctive colors and patterns of West Africa sat beneath a canvas tent. While Ga drummers, famous the world over, quickly attracted an overflow crowd and the First Lady of Ghana and Accra’s Mayor also inspired the audience, the stars of the show were the babies these women held in their arms.
Five of the midwives took their places in the center of the courtyard. One pretended to be in labor and from beneath a blanket another extracted a mannequin baby. “The baby is not breathing,” she announced. The team quickly went into action to resuscitate the baby.
At this point a regional director for MCI, Abenaa Akuamoa-Boateng, whispered into my ear, “This is the golden minute. Success depends on acting swiftly.” In a minute or so, the mannequin seemed to give a cry like a lamb’s bleat. Even with babies in their arms, the audience clapped.
Each year, an estimated one million babies die from birth asphyxia, or the inability to breathe right after delivery. But skilled birth attendants can change that. More golden moments would be successful if more midwives and skilled attendants had the authority and support of their government to attend these births. MCI is working to tackle one aspect of this global campaign – bringing critical health care services to the most vulnerable mothers and newborns in the world’s poorest urban centers.
Much is made, rightly, of the plight of rural women and children, but MCI makes the case that the urban poor represent a great challenge as well. MDGs 4 and 5 simply can’t be achieved if major African population centers have persistently poor health outcomes for mothers and babies.
MCI addresses this problem through a Neonatal Survival Program, piloted during the past year in Accra and Kumasi, Ghana. This program has incorporated training for 120 frontline caregivers in neonatal resuscitation and infant care with follow-up outreach to and health education of more than 1,500 new mothers, demonstrably saving newborn lives. This program has had the support of Johnson & Johnson, AmeriCares, the American Academy of Pediatrics and local and national health agencies. Statistically, it’s all but certain that without this program, some of those 1,500 children would not have survived.
I left Jamestown with the strong conviction that if we are to meet the MDGs, we must treat every minute that we have left as a “golden minute.” I hope we take full advantage of this unique – and critical – moment to act.