Melinda and I have traveled widely in the developing world to better understand the needs of the world’s 1 billion poorest people and to see the work of our foundation up close. Some of our most memorable and emotional experiences have been on visits to places where we’re supporting efforts to safeguard the health of mothers and young children.
Unfortunately in poor countries, many tools and treatments are not reaching moms and children when and where they’re needed. Millions of newborns die each year, yet up to 70 percent could be saved if they and their families simply had access to inexpensive solutions such as antibiotics, sterile blades to cut umbilical cords, immediate, exclusive breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact to keep babies warm.
Mothers in the developing world often deliver at home and rarely see a trained doctor or nurse. Even when they get medical attention, effective treatment may be blocked for a variety of reasons, sometimes financial, sometimes social and cultural. We’re trying to identify the barriers and help societies overcome them to save more lives.
As I noted in my 2010 annual letter for the foundation, the field of children’s health used to be very siloed. Experts on prenatal nutrition didn’t talk to the experts on preterm birth, for example. Over the past four years, we’ve funded several pilot projects that demonstrated how taking an integrated approach can make a big difference. For instance, giving mothers and birth attendants access to easy-to-use antibiotics can reduce infant mortality, but even more so if they’re also given some basic information and culturally appropriate education about how to prevent infection, and if it occurs, how to use antibiotics effectively. We’ve increased our investment in these kinds of integrated efforts.
Melinda has a particular interest in this area and is making several trips this year to see these projects. We have a great working partnership that makes it very comfortable for one of us to focus in on a particular area. We always share what we learn so we can work together in figuring out how it all fits together. Melinda recently returned from a trip to look at maternal and child health projects in India and Malawi and recorded her impressions.