Karachi: The Aga Khan University has got an award of US$ 25M to prevent deaths of mothers and children in Pakistan under a five-year plant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, testing a variety of approaches in an effort to develop insights and evidence that can influence policy across the country and beyond its borders.
An estimated 440,000 mothers and children under the age of five died in Pakistan in 2015, more than in all but two other countries. Because the risks mothers and children face in rural areas are especially high, AKU researchers will focus on 14 mainly rural districts in Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan as well as urban slums in Karachi. In Balochistan, for example, the rate at which women die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth is more than four times higher than in urban areas of Pakistan, and in some areas fewer than one in six women give birth with a health worker present.
Among mothers and children in Pakistan, most deaths are due to preventable or treatable causes, and thus could be avoided. Among children under five, for example, more than 30 per cent of deaths are the result of pneumonia or diarrhoea.
Under the grant, entitled Umeed-e-Nau (A New Hope), the University will partner with public and private sector organisations to introduce at least six large-scale projects in representative settings.
“Breaking the cycle of poverty starts with investing in the health of vulnerable individuals at every stage of life, particularly young women, newborns and children,” said Dr. Christopher Elias, President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We are proud to support Pakistan’s efforts to improve the quality and reach of health services to reduce preventable deaths and make progress toward the country’s 2030 development goals.”
The projects will work with public sector programs and primary care providers such as Lady Health Workers and Community Health Midwives to deliver proven interventions and seek to improve the quality of care at health facilities. They will also empower adolescent girls through health and nutrition education delivered in schools and in communities, as adolescent girls have been largely ignored in public policy and health systems. Ultimately, researchers hope to reduce stillbirths and newborn deaths by 20 percent, and deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea by 30 percent through these strategies.
“Globally, nearly 6 million children under age five died in 2015, while 300,000 women lost their lives due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth,” said Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta, Founding Director of the AKU Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health and Co-Director of the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health in Toronto. “Because most of these deaths are due to illnesses or conditions that we know how to treat, they could be avoided. But the question remains: in countries like Pakistan with limited resources, what are the best ways to make sure people actually receive the health care or health knowledge they need? That’s what our Centre of Excellence focuses on and this grant will allow us to expand our work in both scale and depth.”
Maternal and child health has long been one of AKU’s highest priorities, and the University’s Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health, has emerged as one of the developing world’s leading sources of research in the field. It has contributed to a number of influential Lancet Global Health Series and to the Countdown to 2015 effort, and its work helped to inform the new United Nations’ Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. Its research on community-based solutions to health challenges in rural Pakistan, often involving the government’s Lady Health Workers programme, has been groundbreaking and influential. Umeed-e-Nau builds on the Centre’s achievements over many years, and represents something of a culmination of its work to date.
“This grant reflects the impact and value of the work that AKU undertakes to develop solutions to critical health problems facing women and children, especially those living in poverty and in rural areas,” said AKU President Firoz Rasul. “We are very grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the partnership and support to improve maternal and child health in Pakistan. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Foundation to assist the most vulnerable in our society.”
As part of its activities to support the Sustainable Development Goals, the University has pledged to invest more than US$ 85 million over the next decade in support of the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, which is designed to help achieve Goal 3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, requiring countries to ensure good health and well-being for people of all ages.