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Reflections on the Africa Union conference on maternal, newborn and child health

Over 700 delegates gathered in Nairobi, Kenya to take stock of progress on reducing maternal and child deaths on the continent. Here are 5 insights.

8 November 2018
Kimani Karuga

The conference, a follow-on to the first that took place five years ago in Johannesburg, South Africa, was themed: ‘Maintaining momentum and focus towards ending preventable maternal and child deaths by 2030 and a sustainable path towards Africa’s transformation’. It was organised with support from the African Union Commission and hosted by the Government of Kenya.

Options was one of the key sponsors and convened a pre-conference event focusing on innovations in maternal, newborn and child health. We also held two break-out sessions in the main conference. In addition, ten exhibition booths showcased Options work including innovations funded by UKAid under the County Innovation Challenge Fund. A number of the Options-supported booths were visited by the chief guest, Kenya’s First Lady H.E Margret Kenyatta.

The discussions were rich, both in content and enthusiasm. It was exciting to hear and observe the determination of a wide range of stakeholders to position maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health high on the development agenda. Options hosted a successful pre-conference event, and members of the team had opportunities to network, reflect, and learn.

Five key take-home messages emerged from the conference and its sessions:

  1. Attendees were reminded that women need access to sexual and reproductive health rights in order for them to become fully integrated, equal citizens of their countries. The Maputo Protocol, which has been in place within 15 AU nations since 2005 and guarantees comprehensive rights for women, also calls for states to institute health legislation and policies for improved access to reproductive care, including safe abortions.
  2. Speakers and presenters re-emphasised that sustainable health innovations should be locally crafted, should be of high impact and have potential to be rolled out to scale. Innovations should be evidence-based and engage end-users. Similarly, innovations require innovative funding, including deploying early and mid-stage growth capital in a way that allows innovators to learn, iterate, and scale successfully to create more impactful sustainable enterprises.
  3. The need to enhance quality of data and its use in decision making was clear. Health systems should measure and report what matters most to people such as competent care, user experience, health outcomes, and confidence in the system. As one participant said; “We cannot improve what we cannot measure…. we need to use smarter tools to measure progress and this includes scorecards to bring us to account.”
  4. There was consensus that Primary Health Care is our best path to Universal Health Coverage; to ensure healthcare for all, we first have to go back to the basics and get it right at the lowest levels of care. Participants underscored the importance of preventive and promotive services, such as family planning. One of the clearest messages was that family planning is to maternal health what immunization is to newborn and child health. Participants agreed that preventable maternal deaths will never be eliminated without first addressing gaps in family planning uptake.
  5.  It was reiterated that women are not dying from unknown conditions, but are dying because society has not yet decided that their lives matter. There is no doubt that women and children face the greatest health inequities and bear the brunt of the disease burden. Thus, delegates concluded, that investing in women and children not only improves their lives but the stability and prosperity of families and communities.

As the conference wrapped up, the overall picture was one of a continent on a positive trajectory towards ending preventable maternal and child deaths. There were stories of success, lessons, and opportunities, as well as challenges and pitfalls. There was consensus that the narrative of maternal and child health in Africa needs to change. In the words of one of the speakers, the next conference should not be about “what needs to be done” but rather “what has been done”.

Focus areas
Maternal and Newborn Health

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