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Investment in children - the best buy in global health

As world leaders, economists and captains of industry meet in Davos to tackle the health of the economy, UNICEF and partners are looking at economical ways of bringing better health to vulnerable children.

By Marissa Aroy

NEW YORK, United States of America, 22 January 2013 – As global leaders and business titans gather in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum to discuss the economic outlook of the world, UNICEF is looking at the economic advantages of low-cost commodities and innovations that could save the lives of millions of children and women.

UNICEF Health Chief Dr. Mickey Chopra and Sarah Crowe discuss investment in bringing better health to vulnerable children.  Watch in RealPlayer


Targeting preventable deaths

The scenarios are, tragically, familiar in the world: A new mother bleeds to death because a health centre has run out of medicine; a child dies of pneumonia because there is no one to diagnose or treat her; parents are powerless stop their newborn from contracting malaria. Of the estimated 6.9 million children who died before reaching their fifth birthday in 2011, almost two thirds of them died of infectious diseases, nearly all of which could have been prevented by low-cost, life-saving commodities such as medicines, medical devices and health supplies.

The United Nations Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children identified 13 commodities and their potential impact on millions of lives. Some, like oxytocin, misoprostol and magnesium sulphate, are crucial medicines for a mother suffering complications during and after birth. Others are medicines essential for newborns with health complications (injectable antibiotics, antenatal corticosteroids, chlorhexidine, neo-natal resuscitation devices). For pneumonia, diarrhoea and family planning, there are amoxicillin, oral rehydration solution and contraception, respectively.

In a recent interview with Forbes, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake discussed the urgent need to create commodities markets in the developing world, arguing that healthy children are good for business.

© UNICEF/2013/Ose
UNICEF Health Chief Dr. Mickey Chopra poses with children in Ethiopia. Dr. Chopra stresses that one of the best investments for countries is in the health and welfare of children.

Innovation and partnerships

The solution seems simple enough – manufacture more of these commodities – but ineffective regulation, poor quality oversight and limited or non-existent manufacturing and delivery systems hamper the delivery of commodities to the people who need them most.

For UNICEF Health Chief Dr. Mickey Chopra, the key to making and delivering the commodities lies in innovative approaches and partnerships.

“One of the shortcomings of health programmes, particularly in the poorest countries, has been the lack of investment going into basic supply chains,” says Dr. Chopra. “We need to learn the lessons of how different companies link their supply chains and keep them functioning even in the most difficult of circumstances.”

“Also,” he says, “we are looking at innovation in terms of partnerships: How can we package and piggyback on these supply chains in the private sector to bring life-saving commodities to the poorest children? For example … [w]e have designed cone packaging for rehydration solution so it fits within the existing space.”

© UNICEF/MLIA2012-00643/Bindra
Low-cost innovations such as the blood-prick test for diagnosing malaria can help in the fight against preventable child deaths. Here, the test is performed on a child in the village of Manadougou, Mali.

Innovations to bring down child mortality can be made at the financial level, as well. “Vaccines are a classic example of this,” says Dr. Chopra. “We’ve issued bonds on the market to front-load the purchase of large volumes of vaccines, which allows UNICEF to go to manufacturers and say: ‘We can give you a guaranteed volume if you can reduce the price and advance subsidies’. That has allowed us, along with the private-public partnership GAVI [formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation], to introduce pneumococcal and retro-virus vaccines to the poorest children much more quickly and at a lower cost.”

The case for investing in children

Dr. Chopra believes the best investments for big business and developing countries are in working on these commodities and innovations for children’s health and survival.

His message to Davos is simple: “The future is now. The economists of the world consistently found that investing in children and early childhood, whether it’s in terms of nutrition, education and survival, is by far the most cost-effective intervention a country can make. It translates into a many-fold increase in productivity ... It’s not just the social responsibility thing, it is also very smart business sense, not just creating a market, but also creating new ideas and new sources of wealth in the future.”



Photo Essays: Early child survival

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