The flood season is upon us again. Fortunately, it has been not as bad as some of the previous years, but every life that is lost is one too many. During these times, like many other times throughout the year, the likelihood of saving the most vulnerable lives plummets. At times like these, maternal and child health, where Pakistan does not have a particularly impressive record, becomes particularly vulnerable. With maternal and infant mortality rates among the highest in the world, Pakistan has some way to go. Access, malnutrition, a highly male-dominated society, fatalism, incoherent government policy and perhaps, lack of basic education, all contribute to the grim statistics.
But we all know this, and I am sure many readers will point out many other factors that I missed that contribute significantly to the current status. The point is not what is going on, but what can be done to change the course. I believe that what we need is a national initiative on saving the most vulnerable lives, or simply doing all that we can to eliminate preventable deaths of mothers and newborns. The idea is not particularly innovative, since there is already a global grand challenge, sponsored jointly by the USAID, the Gates Foundation, the UK Aid, the Grand Challenges Canada and the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs with the goal of “Saving Lives at Birth”, a global initiative that seeks out the most creative ideas and innovations to save the lives of mothers and newborns. Whether it is a new drug or a way to test a drug, whether it is community development or a new microfinance scheme, all ideas are welcome. The top ideas are scrutinised by world leaders in maternal and child health and the best amongst them are awarded grants to change the world for the better.
Now, here is why we need to have a similar Pakistan-based initiative. First, it makes simple economic sense. We cannot deny that we have major health challenges, especially for women and children. These challenges also have long-term economic and socio-economic implications. It is well known that children without a mother are more likely to miss their nutrition milestones, are more likely to drop out of school and are less likely to be productive members of society. Similarly, mothers who lose children during childbirth suffer through a trauma like no other and are often not able to raise their other children in an effective way and consequently develop long-term health complications. Improved maternal and child health, together with a rational discourse on population planning, will save billions of rupees later on that can then be spent on other worthy causes.
Second, maternal and child health is a cause that resonates with our society, across all sectors irrespective of political preferences or religious inclinations. Our relationship with our mothers and our children enables us to be bold and generous, thus creating a better union than we currently have.
Finally, I believe that this cause will lead to the creation of new challenges and opportunities for our students and researchers in medical colleges and engineering universities to come together for low-cost, robust and Pakistan-specific solutions to meet a global grand challenge. In a society where innovation desperately needs to be grounded in laws of science and cross-disciplinary collaboration is almost non-existent, this will serve as a rallying cry to create tangible solutions with a clear goal and a clear impact.
I believe that investment, either private or public, is not the barrier here. The very idea for low-cost, simple and affordable solutions will not require huge infrastructure. The question we should ask ourselves is not whether we have the means to change the course we are on, but whether we have the will to do it.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2012.