The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is boosting its investments in the health of mothers and newborns, which saves lives at a much lower cost than treating diseases later on, Melinda Gates said. The world's largest private foundation is also stepping up its efforts to fund contraception, she said.
At a time when effects of the recession are straining budgets worldwide, Gates urged governments to maintain their commitments to global health and pointed out how donors can "get more bang for your buck."
Gates, who is co-chair of the foundation, spoke on a call Monday evening with members of the organization ONE along with Melanne Verveer, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues.
Promoting breast feeding for the first six months of life, for example, boosts a child's immunity and reduces exposure to disease, Gates said.
"To do that costs about $2 to $7 dollars to save a life, versus tens or even hundreds of dollars per life to treat something like malaria and AIDS," she said.
"I'm not saying we shouldn't do malaria and AIDS, but I'm trying to point out how inexpensive it is to save these newborn lives."
The emphasis on maternal health is interesting in the context of a study and editorial by the medical journal The Lancet last year, which cited an "alarmingly poor correlation between the [Gates] Foundation's funding and childhood disease priorities," saying specific diseases like malaria and HIV dominated the foundation's focus.
The amount the Gates Foundation gave to maternal, newborn and child health increased from about $46 million in 2008 to more than $128 million last year, according to a grant search on the foundation's Web site. Last year the foundation also gave $16.5 million for family planning. Its funding for malaria reached nearly $350 million.
Gates talked about teaching a method known as "Kangaroo Mother Care," which encourages mothers to wrap and hold their babies until they can maintain their own body temperature. (In fact a study published this week found that "kangaroo mother care" cut newborn deaths by more than 50 percent and was more effective than incubators). Inexpensive drugs can also prevent mothers from hemorrhaging in childbirth.
Such a comprehensive program, together with contraception, could cut maternal deaths by 75 percent and reduce newborn deaths by 44 percent, she said. More than half a million women a year die in childbirth, and 4 million babies die in their first month of life, according to the World Health Organization.
Gates said she often gets asked "Aren't these moms going to overpopulate the world?" but in fact the opposite is true. "When moms know their babies are going to live into adulthood, they naturally bring down their population. And they're thrilled because they have the chance to feed two or three children versus five or six or seven."
Women also need access to contraception, she said.
In a visit to Malawi earlier this year, "I was pretty blown away with how many women were asking for family planning" but don't have it, she said. "They are clamoring for modern science."