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Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health: Dr. Zulfiqar Bhutta (Canada and Pakistan)

By: Kayla McGowan, Project Coordinator, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Zulfiqar_BhuttaIn July 2016, 35 global leaders in maternal newborn health gathered for the second annual Safe Mothers and Newborns Leadership Workshop (SMNLW) hosted by the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF), the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and The Aga Kahn University, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The participants represented 26 countries from five continents.

SMNLW participant Dr. Zulfiqar A. Bhutta is the Robert Harding Inaugural Chair in Global Child Health at The Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Co-Director of the SickKids Centre for Global Child Health and the Founding Director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health, at the Aga Khan University, unique joint appointments. He also holds adjunct professorships at several leading Universities globally including the Schools of Public Health at Johns Hopkins (Baltimore), Tufts University (Boston), Boston University School of Public Health, University of Alberta as well as the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. He is a designated Distinguished National Professor of the Government of Pakistan and was the Founding Chair of the National Research Ethics Committee of the Government of Pakistan from 2003-2014.

K: Tell me about yourself and the work that you do.

Z: I am the Director of the Center of Excellence in Women and Child Health across the Aga Khan University campuses and the Chair in Global Child Health at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, so I have a leg in the East and West.

K: What is the biggest challenge in maternal and newborn health where you work? What is being done to address that challenge?

Z: The biggest challenge is reducing the current high levels of maternal and child mortality worldwide. The big challenge is determining how to accelerate progress so that these numbers can go down to reasonable numbers within the next 10 years. What are the kinds of evidence-based policies and strategies that will work in different contexts? Roughly about 40% of the current burden of maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality is in countries which are in the middle of significant conflict and humanitarian emergencies. One big challenge we have is how to reduce the burden in settings which are fragile states, etc. These challenges are many, and they place the responsibility upon us in terms of actions and difficult circumstances, but they should be possible to handle. We will be able to reach a solution to this together.

K: What kind of leader do you aspire to be?

Z: I consider myself a humble worker in the field, and since I do a fair amount of evidence-based advocacy, I look upon myself as continuing to promote evidence-based practice and action. I think if I can influence my students and practitioners to think that way, that would be a great achievement. I think what we’ve achieved—despite all the global challenges to bringing attention to maternal and newborn health—is nothing less than miraculous. Some years ago, it would have been quite impossible for us to imagine that we could reduce the burden of child mortality by 50% within a decade. But it has happened, and the fact that it has happened within a rapid period of time and has led to a lot of investment in this area is a reflection of how the world can rally behind maternal and child health if you make the case. But having made the case for almost a decade now, we also know that the world is a very fickle place. People move on. So now, we’ve got to look at different things, different models of change, different players, different donors and different stakeholders in country-level, especially emerging from the younger leadership in maternal and child health.

K: What would you like MHTF readers to know?

Z: The big challenge we have now is lack of integration. How do we integrate maternal health and child health and newborn health in settings where they are still in separate silos? We should prioritize this in the Sustainable Development Goals because we have a lot of people who are interested in this but do not know how to accomplish it practically. We need to take a few model countries and implement this. Implementation and integration of maternal newborn health are two key strategies, especially in fragile states and among poor, marginalized populations.

Access recent publications co-authored by Dr. Bhutta below:

Read another MHTF interview with Dr. Bhutta | Quality of Care for Maternal and Child Health: An Interview With Dr. Zulfi Bhutta

Did you miss previous interviews from the Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health series? Find them here:

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