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Our Chance to Reach Every Mother and Child | Commentary

By Joanne Carter The number of children dying every year has been driven down by more than half since 1990, UNICEF announced this month. But there’s a long way left to go: 11 children under age 5 still die every single minute from mostly preventable causes. Now Congress has an unprecedented opportunity to help end these needless child deaths once and for all.  

The science shows that for the first time in human history, the end of preventable deaths is within reach. Using tools we already have — vaccines, inexpensive antibiotics, vitamin A supplements and more — by 2035 a child born in one of the world’s poorest settings could have nearly the same chance of reaching her fifth birthday as one born in the richest. The new, bipartisan Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 will make sure the U.S. does its part to get there.  

The number of children dying every year is now down to 5.9 million from more than 12 million in 1990. This is still a horrifically high number, but also incredible progress. And while we still urgently need to accelerate progress against maternal mortality, the number of women dying during pregnancy or childbirth has also declined, thanks to increased access to prenatal care, skilled birth attendants and other key interventions. The United States, with strong bipartisan support, has played a leading role in getting us this far.  

In 2012, the U.S. Agency for International Development committed itself to the global goal of ending these preventable deaths, and working with UNICEF and the governments of Ethiopia, India and many others, helped forge a global consensus that we can do this. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah then invited an independent review panel to identify how to reach the goal even faster. This Blue Ribbon panel, which I was honored to join, brought together experts from the business and development sectors to identify and recommend key reforms, including the creation of a Child and Maternal Survival Coordinator.  

The panel worked with USAID for more than a year to pinpoint both what’s working and where it can do better. Last summer, Shah announced the ambitious “Acting on the Call” action plan, including the realignment of nearly $3 billion in existing grants to save an additional 500,000 lives by the end of this year alone. The plan focuses the agency on the highest impact, proven strategies for supporting countries to save lives. But there’s still more work to do, and now Congress can help ensure that these critical reforms are fully realized and effectively supported into the future.  

These reforms include clear, measurable targets and accountability to achieve the promise of ending preventable child and maternal deaths, as well as investing based on the latest evidence and science. We also need to sharpen our focus on the poorest and most vulnerable populations in all countries where we work. And we need to make sure we’re supporting countries to build the systems and partnerships that give every child and every mother the chance to survive and thrive.  

The Reach Act, led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Chris Coons, D-Del., would enshrine these reforms into law. With Congress back in Washington, it should seize the opportunity to take up this bill and change the course of our shared future.  

The health and well-being of the world’s mothers and children is not — and never has been — a partisan issue. Every child, regardless of where she is born, deserves a chance to reach her fifth birthday healthy and flourishing. Every mother deserves a healthy pregnancy, safe delivery and the chance to see her child reach that milestone. Congress and both of the past two administrations have shown that they understand this.  

If they choose, our lawmakers now have the chance to put that shared belief into action.  

Dr. Joanne Carter is the Executive Director of RESULTS and RESULTS Educational Fund, an international grassroots advocacy group focused on ending poverty.
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