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Opinion: Small actions can help world's poor children

UN speeches must be followed up with concrete steps to boost health of kids.

Malawi children Millennium Development Goal
Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries but it has made significant progress in improving the health of its children as part of the Millennium Development Goals. Here two children at the Mphandula Childcare Center which supports over 350 Children from the surrounding Namitete villages.(Michelly Rall/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — This week, President Barack Obama announced a new global development policy, the United Nations convened a summit on the Millennium Development Goals and the United Nations Secretary General and world leaders released a new, broadly-backed global strategy on women’s and children’s health. 

So what happens now that the speeches are over? Watch for the answer in villages and shantytowns across Africa and Asia.

Hopefully, inspired leaders of many developing countries will blaze the same trail as political and social leaders in Bangladesh and Malawi — where, despite extreme poverty, they’ve made incredible progress reducing child mortality and hunger.

Hopefully, the leaders of wealthier nations will back up their promises and, as Obama has pledged, partner with those ready to fight preventable child and maternal deaths and malnutrition. 

Hopefully, the excellent principles in the new U.S. global development policy will actually be implemented and unleash the full power of U.S. resources directed at fighting poverty and supporting every child’s right to grow up healthy.

And, hopefully, even more corporations, foundations, nongovernmental organizations and everyday people will back the poverty reduction goals the world agreed to in 2000. 

The payoff would be huge — for everybody. Healthy and well-nourished children are more likely to do well in school and earn more as adults. Educated, empowered girls grow up to have fewer and healthier children. The bottom line — healthy, educated young people fuel their countries’ development. That means better partners for the U.S. as well as a more secure and prosperous world for all. And what child isn’t worth the modest investment it takes to change or save a life?

Existing efforts are working. But they have yet to reach everyone who needs them, and in many countries they’re reaching the better off more than the poorest. More than 12 million newborns and children no longer die every year — as they did in 1990. But 8 million still do. Most of these deaths are entirely preventable with low-cost, proven solutions.

For instance, less than $1 of antibiotics can treat the number one killer of children — pneumonia.  Better breastfeeding could prevent the deaths of over a 1 million children a year, primarily by protecting against pneumonia and the number two killer of children — diarrhea.  Skilled attendance at birth and pre- and post-natal care can dramatically reduce the needless deaths of millions of newborns and mothers each year. Inexpensive bed nets and drugs can prevent and treat another leading child killer — malaria.

Regrettably, this basic care has often failed to reach the world’s poorest. But there are practical, sustainable solutions. Health workers, often recruited from the communities in which they live, can deliver much of the life-saving care that is needed. With very basic training, these community health workers are able to treat diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria, promote breastfeeding and provide basic newborn care. In some countries, they have received the additional midwifery training needed to assist mothers and newborns before, during and after delivery.