SEATTLE — In its most recent Annual Letter, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation reflected on the most important gains made in terms of global health in the last few decades. The most important improvement listed in this letter is that the annual number of deaths of children under the age of five has been cut in half since 1990. However, while the total number of childhood deaths has dropped, newborn deaths have not. Maternal and child survival can be improved by providing healthcare facilities in developing countries with basics such as electricity, safe water supplies and adequate sanitation.
In 2015, 2.6 million children died in their first month of life and an additional 2.6 million were stillborn. The main causes of newborn deaths are complications due to prematurity, complications during delivery and infection.
Newborn survival is also closely linked to maternal health and while maternal deaths have declined since the 1990s, more than 800 women die daily in developing countries from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. More than half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of these deaths occur as a result of treatable conditions such as severe bleeding, infection, high blood pressure and complications during delivery.
Sustainable and reliable electricity
A 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) report found that 26 percent of health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa had no access to electricity and only 28 percent had reliable electricity. These facilities thus lack the most basic energy services, including lighting for child delivery and emergency night-time care, refrigeration of vaccines and electricity for simple medical and diagnostic equipment.
Solar power is one solution many programs in African countries are turning toward to provide healthcare facilities with sustainable and reliable electricity. Progress is also being made to develop innovative solar-powered equipment. One example is the We Care Solar Suitcase, a self-contained solar electrical system designed to support maternal and child health care.
Basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services
Something as simple as handwashing with soap can improve maternal and child survival. By washing hands with soap during childbirth and newborn care, newborn deaths can be reduced by up to 44 percent. This simple step reduces the likelihood of infection in both mother and baby. However, a recent study by the WHO on healthcare facilities in 54 developing countries found that 38 percent lack access to water, 19 percent lack sanitation and 35 percent do not have water and soap for handwashing. In Tanzania, for instance, only 1.5 percent of all births take place in an environment that has access to these basic services.
As is the case with access to electricity, decentralized water stations are being used to provide individual healthcare facilities with access to clean water. Zambia, for instance, has been rolling out a project that provides two water stations to health facilities throughout the country. One station provides chlorinated water that is safe for drinking and the second water station is used for handwashing. If the healthcare facility does not have access to a water supply, water is delivered to them.
These programs, working to provide healthcare facilities in sub-Saharan Africa with basic access to water and electricity to improve maternal and child survival, show how small, simple innovations can save lives.
– Helena Kamper