A new three-year, $12 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will support a Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) effort to significantly improve maternal health in developing countries. The project will be led by Ana Langer, professor of the practice of public health and coordinator of the Dean’s Special Initiative on Women and Health at HSPH.
Under the grant, HSPH will host the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) — an initiative bringing together major global and country-level maternal health organizations to improve maternal health in developing countries by leading, coordinating, and promoting innovative and effective knowledge management, technical exchanges, and consensus-building activities; strengthening countries’ health care capacity through mentoring and training; and supporting strategic research on critical issues.
The MHTF was established in 2008 by EngenderHealth, a leading global reproductive health organization working to improve the quality of family planning, maternal health, and HIV programs in more than 20 countries. During the past three years, the MHTF at EngenderHealth has created connections among existing maternal health initiatives and engaged global and national organizations to pinpoint problems facing the maternal health community and identify solutions. It has also disseminated scientific information to maternal health professionals all over the world; created opportunities for colleagues and groups in developing countries to lead and participate as equal partners in technical exchanges and agenda-setting processes; mentored young leaders in the maternal health field; and identified and supported innovation in maternal health worldwide.
Building on this strong foundation, HSPH will lead the next phase of the task force, continuing key program activities as well as undertaking new initiatives, including major research on maternal health and related fields. HSPH will assume hosting responsibilities for the next phase of the task force beginning on Nov. 1.
HSPH, with a distinguished history in research on maternal and child health as well as well-established partnerships with governments, academic organizations, and nongovernmental organizations in developing countries, is uniquely positioned to host the next phase of the Maternal Health Task Force. In July 2010, the School made a firm commitment to advancing the global women’s health agenda by establishing the Women and Health Initiative.
Although most maternal deaths are preventable, it’s estimated that more than 340,000 women each year still die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. “We are talking about sheer survival,” HSPH Dean Julio Frenk wrote last year in a Harvard Public Health Review article about the School’s women and health agenda. “The fact that 99 percent of maternal deaths take place in poor countries makes this the most inequitably distributed health indicator in the world.”
Currently, stakeholders from the public health, academic, governmental, and philanthropic communities are keenly focused on reducing maternal mortality. One of the United Nations’ eight Millennium Development Goals is to achieve a 75 percent reduction from 1990 levels in the global maternal mortality ratio by 2015. However, despite some recent signs of improvement, progress remains slow and lags well behind the rate needed to meet the 2015 goal.
The goals of the next phase of the MHTF — bolstered through its affiliation with HSPH — will include expanding research and educational activities that are critical to the eradication of preventable maternal morbidity and mortality, said Langer. “This new grant will help us meet the perceived needs of the global maternal health community and help HSPH continue serving as a trailblazer and putting these issues at center stage,” she said.