This is a guest blog by Debra Jones, director of Family Care International’s Global Advocacy program and a member of the Global Health Council’s delegation to the World Health Assembly. It is being co-published on The FCI Blog.
GENEVA — Anyone attending the 64th World Health Assembly knows that the published agenda is not written in stone. It’s never clear exactly when a resolution will actually come up for consideration. The nearby Serpentine Lounge is always filled with the din of hushed chatter and the aroma of café au lait, as participants network, advocate and strategize while waiting for their agenda items to come to the floor. One agenda item that I anticipated with great interest was WHO’s implementation plan for its 2010 resolution on maternal, infant and child nutrition.
Nutrition is a key indicator of poverty, health, education and social conditions. Good nutrition strengthens communities and local economies by protecting and promoting health, enabling cognitive development, increasing work performance and much more. Good nutrition is critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and to improving maternal and child health.
At this year’s World Health Assembly, MNCH advocates are urging governments to invest in long-term, evidence-based, high-quality interventions with an impact on nutrition. These must be delivered through effective health systems, and with communities’ support and engagement. These interventions include:
- Good nutrition practices among pregnant and lactating women;
- Skilled antenatal care, which can detect malnutrition and promote good nutrition for women and infants;
- Comprehensive family planning, which increases spacing between pregnancies to reduce infant and child mortality (increasing birth spacing has a proven relationship with improved maternal and child nutrition);
- Early, exclusive breastfeeding for six months, and continued breastfeeding with complementary foods from 6 months to 2 years;
- Food supplementation and fortification where complementary foods lack nutrients required by young children;
- Infant feeding during and after illness to prevent dehydration and malnutrition, and help with recovery;
- Appropriate feeding practices in line with national guidelines for infants affected by HIV and AIDS.
As with virtually every issue related to health and poverty, efforts to promote these key interventions must address disparities in access between rich and poor, with a particular focus on marginalized groups, and should take into account the gender inequalities and discrimination that prevent women and girls from accessing available health and nutrition information and services.
The discussion on maternal and child nutrition, in the Friday session of WHA’s Committee B, was a good start, touching on various policies that can improve nutrition, and on the importance of raising popular awareness to this issue. At the Assembly, the draft implementation plan was presented to U.N. member states for their comments as part of a two-year consultative process to finalize the measures. As that process continues, the focus now must shift to the country level, where governments must implement and monitor these plans and policies. Once again, accountability is crucial — plans, policies, and promises don’t save lives until they are translated into concrete, aggressive actions on the ground.