A Closer Look at Lifesaving Maternal Health Medicines

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By: Rachel Wilson, Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy (PATH), Co-Chair (Maternal Health Supplies Working Group)

Today could be the beginning of a significant, life-saving shift for maternal health. The United Nations Children’s Fund  and the United Nations Population Fund launched a high-level commission to improve access to essential but overlooked health supplies, including medicines that could save the lives of millions of women.

Worldwide, an estimated 350,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth every year. Most maternal deaths can be prevented with affordable and effective medicines, such as oxytocin, misoprostol, and magnesium sulfate. Together with skilled health workers and strong health systems, these medicines can transform women’s health in developing countries.

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“The day of birth is the most dangerous day in the life of a woman and her child,” stated commission co-chair Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg of Norway in today’s announcement. “The fact that women do not get the care they need during childbirth is the most brutal expression of discrimination against women. To prevent these tragic and unnecessary deaths is not only a humanitarian urgency of highest priority, but a key investment for social and economic development.”

We know what the main barriers and gaps are, including weak logistics and supply chains, inadequate regulatory capacity to protect people from sub-standard or counterfeit medicines, lack of affordable medicines, and confusion about how, why, and when to use them. And we know from other health areas that it is possible to overcome these challenges in even the poorest and most isolated communities. Solving these systemic and structural problems now will help countries strengthen and provide critical obstetric health services well into the future.

“There is no doubt that lives can be saved by increasing access to affordable and effective medicines and health supplies. We must all make a difference and the time is now,” said commission co-chair President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria.

With technical and political leadership, the commission can contribute significantly to improving women’s health worldwide by:

  • Quantifying the unmet need for maternal health medicines so manufacturers can adequately scale up to meet that need and cost estimates to achieve universal coverage can be calculated.
  • Identifying global and national level expenditures for maternal health medicines so any gaps between necessary and actual funding levels can be determined and filled.
  • Exploring bulk purchasing mechanisms so that prices remain low while at the same time creating more attractive markets for manufacturers.
  • Decreasing the prevalence of substandard medicines.
  • Improving national regulatory capacity to ensure that only quality medicines are available and that new medicines can effectively enter the market.
  • Promoting the national registration of essential maternal health medicines as identified by the World Health Organization.
  • Supporting new product development and delivery innovations.
  • Strengthening management information systems to ensure medicine availability and avoid stockouts but not too far in advance to risk expiration.
  • Monitoring policy implementation so gaps may be addressed.
  • Improving knowledge and skills of health care providers and supply chain managers.
  • Building the evidence base and human resource capacity for administration of maternal health medicines by lower-level workers so that women may receive appropriate care when delivering in their community.

With a concentrated and continued focus on high-impact health supplies, the commission’s work could make unprecedented leaps toward the Every Woman Every Child movement’s goal to save 16 million lives by 2015.

To learn more about the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children, visit http://www.everywomaneverychild.org/resources/un-commission-on-life-saving-commodities.