14 April 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on New Initiative on Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn Health


An intensive focus on maternal health could boost the achievement of all international development goals, a panel of high Government and United Nations officials said as they kicked off a new global initiative this afternoon.

“A health system that delivers for mothers will deliver for the whole community.  But first we must deliver,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he regretted that among the Millennium Development Goals, progress towards Goal Number 5, to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters by 2015, was lagging.

Helping Mr. Ban to launch a Joint Action Plan on the issue, as part of the lead-up to September’s Millennium Development Goal assessment summit, were President Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete of the United Republic of Tanzania, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, Vice-President Boediono of Indonesia, Canadian Minister for International Cooperation Beverley J. Oda, and Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO).

“For too long, maternal and child health has been at the back of the MDG train, but we know it can be the engine of development,” Mr. Ban said, stressing that one preventable maternal death is too many and that the current hundreds of thousands are simply unacceptable.

Calling for urgent and strategic efforts, the Joint Action Plan urges all stakeholders, developed and developing countries, civil society actors, private businesses, philanthropic institutions and the multilateral system to each offer new initiatives to reduce not only maternal mortality, but also infant mortality, which Millennium Development Goal Number 4 requires slashed by two thirds by 2015.

It also urges all stakeholders to adopt an accountability framework that will keep maternal and child health high on the national and international development agenda.

President Kikwete welcomed extra efforts for maternal and child health, which were crucial if many countries were to meet their targets.  For that to happen, he said, resources and access to health care should be increased, along with the number of health professionals and the availability of vaccines and life-saving medicines.  With the support of developed countries, the targets could be met, he affirmed.

In his statement, Vice-President Boediono agreed that more money was needed to improve maternal health.  It was critical, however, for each country to formulate the best possible programme, and then to mobilize resources domestically, regionally and globally.  He pledged that his country would do its best to attain all the Goals by 2015.

Agreeing that greater resources, used more effectively, were essential, Prime Minister Stoltenberg said that it was also important to point out that progress was being made on child and maternal health.  In the last three years, he said, child mortality had decreased from 9.7 million to 8.8 million per year.

He noted that the medical journal Lancet had now published figures that showed better-than-anticipated progress on maternal health as well.  But there was a long way to go, he commented, adding that most mothers and children died because of easily preventable causes -– lack of services and medicines, respectively.  As a model for effective use of resources, he pointed to the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization, which paid for each child inoculated.  In the same way, mothers could be paid for delivering at a clinic, he suggested. 

Minister Oda said that commitments to sustainable progress must be strengthened through cooperation, coherence and accountability.  As current President of the Group of Eight (G-8), Canada hoped to embrace the new initiative and would urge further commitments at the G-8 Summit in June.  Most importantly, a commitment to obtaining real results was needed. 

Finally, Director-General Chan said that political leadership was needed, but space must also be given to civil society.  She said that successful national action plans all had in common prioritizing interventions that were cost-effective and bundled together.  For example, interventions in maternal and child health could be integrated with efforts to fight HIV/AIDS.  She stressed the need, in addition, for a “robust accountability framework” holding all stakeholders to their commitments. 

In answer to questions about the discrepancy in maternal mortality figures between the United Nations and the study released in The Lancet journal, Dr. Chan said a variety of estimates were valuable, given the margins of error and the fact that many countries did not have reliable birth and death registration. 

In any case, she said that the United Nations inter-agency group was conducting an update on its last estimate that would probably result in figures similar to those published in The Lancet.  It was important to note, however, that some countries were making much less progress than others.

In response to allegations that pressure was brought to bear on The Lancet to delay publishing its findings -- which show a greater reduction of maternal mortality than those of the United Nations -- until after the launch of the Joint Action Plan, so as not to put a damper on fundraising, Secretary-General Ban said that he was not aware of any such pressure.  “Everyone at this meeting is a firm believer in science,” he assured correspondents.  “Any signs of progress show we are on the right track,” he added.

In response to questions about handling sexual issues that affected maternal and child health, both Dr. Chan and Ms. Oda emphasized the importance of providing young people with information and access to the resources they needed, but stressed that such matters and others must be handled by partner countries in the ways they deemed appropriate, though donors could provide advice and assistance.

In regard to the funding needed for the entire initiative, the Secretary-General said that from now through September, Member States would start developing action plans to meet the Millennium Development Goals, and only after those were completed could a picture of requirements be developed.

Indonesia had already developed a five-year plan that placed attaining the Goals within its programme to accelerate economic growth and increase services, Vice-President Boediono said, relying on both domestic and international support, the latter mainly for technical expertise. 

Finally, asked about a WHO expert alleged to have formed a pharmaceutical lobbying group that might have pushed to ramp up the alarm over the H1N1 pandemic, Dr. Chan noted that H1N1 held great dangers for pregnant women.  She said that WHO must work with many industries because they provided solutions.  However, the agency, she affirmed, used all means to guard its independence and assure that WHO advisories were based on the best available evidence.  If there had been undeclared conflicts of interest, they would be investigated.  If anyone had any evidence to that effect, it should be presented to WHO, she added.

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For information media • not an official record