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AU Leaders Summit Kicks Off, Focus On Maternal And Child Health

Heads of state from the African Union (AU) started a three-day meeting in Kampala, Uganda, on Sunday as part of the 15th AU Summit, People’s Daily Online reports. Leaders will focus on maternal and child health and will discuss several other issues, including agricultural development, food security, infrastructure development and economic integration (7/26).

VOA News reports on the opening of the summit where U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered prepared remarks. Holder “pledged strong American support of [the AU peacekeeping mission] AMISOM and the Kampala bomb probe. ‘My nation is also among many working to bring the perpetrators of these vicious acts to justice,’” he said (Heinlein, 7/25). According to a statement from the Justice Department, Holder will meet with “several African leaders” while he is traveling in the region, Agence France-Presse reports. His meetings will focus on “joint U.S.-Africa efforts to promote peace, development and justice, including cooperation on fighting terrorism,” the statement said (7/24).

“The summit also featured a frank examination of Africa’s poor record in the field of healthcare for women and children,” VOA News writes. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni “joined some of Africa’s most powerful women in a panel discussion led by BBC television news anchor Zeinab Badawi.” The singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who participated in the panel, said, “You are presidents because of those women and those children. Those are the people who put you in power. As an African woman and the mother of four sons, I need to say this Africa is for all those who live in it. Africa has been released from the shackles of slavery, and we have our freedom. And what does freedom mean? Freedom means health, education, water, sanitation. Health is an investment.”

AU Social Affairs Commissioner Bience Gawanas said: “You are once again called upon to show that Africa can also provide quality service to the women and children of Africa. We have got a collective responsibility and we have to involve all our stakeholders also to take responsibility for the lives of women and children” said (7/25).

The summit’s theme is maternal and child health, but “attention has shifted to regional security – especially the conflict in Somalia – since the summit opened with the foreign ministers meeting last week,” Daily Nation/allAfrica.com reports, adding: “But Jean Ping, the chairperson of the AU commission, downplayed the issue, saying that maternal and child health was still a priority of governments. ‘We haven’t neglected the theme, but you cannot address maternal and child health if you don’t have peace,’ Ping said.” He noted that leaders will discuss strategies to reduce maternal mortality (Lirri, 7/24).

‘State Of The Union Continental Report’ Highlights Health, MDG Efforts

PANA/Afrique en ligne reports on the pre-meeting release of the State of the Union Continental Report 2010 (.pdf) on Saturday, which “assesses the performance of AU member states against key governance, economic, social, civil and political policy standards and rights instruments over the period 2004-2009.”

The report found that “only Algeria and Egypt would meet the [Millennium Development Goal] MDG target of reducing under-five mortality by two-thirds. Rwanda has recorded a rapid improvement but it is still insufficient to meet the target, while others including Cameroon and Kenya have actually seen an increase in under-five mortality,” PANA/Afrique en ligne writes, adding that “there has been considerable progress in the provision and delivery of health services with some countries recording breakthroughs in maternal and child health and reversing prevalence of HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. However, insufficient progress has been reported in public financing of health, protecting women from unsafe abortions and adolescent sex education. Only Rwanda is mentioned to have met the 15 percent health-financing target in 2009” (7/25). And the Daily Nation writes: “the report paints a picture of unfulfilled agreements, missed targets, and failure to invest in the development of the continent.” The article also includes reaction from local experts and advocates (Nakaweesi, 7/24).

Advocates Call On AU Leaders To Improve Health On The Continent

In related news, more than 100 “African organisations working in health” and other fields have sent a letter to AU leaders “urging governments to uphold, improve and urgently implement African and global health and social development financing commitments,” the Times of Swaziland reports.

The letter also says, “Proactively and preventively dealing with health problems caused by unsafe water, poor sanitation, malnutrition and poor environmental policies, will free limited health budgets to deal with more serious and complex issues” (Ndlela, 7/26). “The proven solutions to ensuring the vast majority of child and maternal deaths are well known, evidence based and extremely cost effective. What is leadership if not making sure that it reaches the millions of mothers, newborn and children who would otherwise die,” the letter states, the Daily Monitor reports, noting that Archbishop Desmond Tutu also signed the letter. “This is a critical moment for African leaders to show they will put in place the dedicated resources, health policies and systems that will save the lives of millions of their own people,” the letter says (Lirri, 7/24).

Also, ahead of the leadership summit on Friday, Save the Children “urged African leaders to take clear actions to end the majority of the continent’s annual 4.5 million child deaths and 265,000 maternal deaths,” Xinhua reports.

Save the Children “also urged the leaders to make sure the resources are there and that every African country should meet and exceed its 2001 promise in Abuja , Nigeria to spend at least 15 percent of the national budget on health care. ‘Additionally, a meaningful portion of this budget must specifically dedicated to maternal, newborn, and child health,’ it said, adding that countries must recruit, train and retain more doctors, nurses, and midwives to help reduce the overall gap of 800,000 health workers in Africa by 2015” (7/23).

A related Xinhua article examines Africa’s high maternal mortality rate. “Money has long been regarded as the panacea to the chronic disease of maternal deaths in the region. A universal belief is that ‘the buck stops with bucks’ in Africa since insufficient funding has led to lack of health services and facilities, medical personnel brain drain of and deficient pre- and post-natal care. But money is not the only reason behind the alarmingly high maternal mortality in Africa. A few other elements are also to blame on the paradox of ‘losing life while giving life on the continent” (Tao and Ye, 7/25).