The Government of Canada has pledged to make maternal and child health central to this year’s G8 meeting and is asking G8 members and other countries to make commitments to saving and improving lives. We understand that the aim of the Government of Canada’s initiative is to generate international commitment and action to address the tragic rates of maternal and child mortality and morbidity that prevail in developing countries.
Canada’s leadership in this matter is timely and much needed. Success in this initiative is essential if the world community is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing the global child and maternal mortality rates by two-thirds and three-quarters, respectively, by 2015.
As President of the Micronutrient Initiative, I believe that to achieve these goals, maternal and child health programs must place strong emphasis on measures that tackle undernutrition. Nutrition has been called the “forgotten MDG”. Slow progress on the health MDGs is at least partially due to the neglect of nutrition. The distinguished medical journal, The Lancet, provided recent indisputable evidence of this. Following a careful review of thousands of studies, they reported that maternal and child undernutrition is the direct or indirect cause of an estimated 3.5 million preventable maternal and child deaths annually. They showed that a child’s growth trajectory is set for life in the first few years of life; and not having adequate nutrition during this critical time has lifelong consequences on health, productivity and economic growth. Finally, The Lancet confirmed the ready availability of nutrition and health interventions which, when targeted during the critical “window of opportunity” in a child’s life of minus 9 to 24 months, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health.
Additional evidence shows that improving nutrition during this “window of opportunity” improves cognitive development and school performance, reduces school dropouts and promotes national economic productivity. The 2008 Copenhagen Consensus summarized the conclusions of a panel of leading economists, including five Nobel Laureates, on the top ten investments that could be made in development. Five of these were nutrition-related. Micronutrients – vitamins and minerals essential for human health and development – were at the very top of the list.
The world is still feeling the repercussions of the global financial crisis and governments are making tough choices on where they can cut spending. But we cannot allow gains made during more prosperous times to be lost – we must make smart development choices and in my opinion, there is no better development investment world leaders can make than those in nutrition in general and micronutrients in particular. The timing is crucial. With long-term Canadian funding, the Micronutrient Initiative has realized tangible results which are recognized at the global level; micronutrient programming saves lives and helps children and families reach their full potential at a very low cost. We have proven that investments in micronutrients work and can be implemented cost-effectively and sustainably. Low cost solutions are at hand. They can be implemented without delay and show measurable impact very quickly. It is critical for the international community to make investments that will have solid and lasting results – it is critical to continue and increase support for the delivery of life-saving and life-enhancing micronutrients.