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A call to action - Investing in reproductive health saves lives and money

Published:Sunday | March 15, 2015 | 12:00 AMDr Babatunde Osotimehin & Ann M Starrs
Dr Fabrizia de Paula, inspects 9-month pregnant Sonia Viera, 16, at the Santa Helena Maternity Clinic in Duque de Caxias, a low-income city outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Here is an unacceptable fact: there are 23 million women living in Latin America and the Caribbean who want to avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. The consequences are huge, with 10 million unintended pregnancies and 3.9 million unsafe abortions per year.

We can and must do better. During the past decade, there has been significant progress in improving the health and well-being of women worldwide. Today, more women than ever before are using modern contraception to plan their pregnancies. More women give birth in health facilities with professional medical care, and fewer people are dying from AIDS. These results represent the global community's efforts to bring essential drugs and services to the poorest regions of the world.

Yet, these gains have barely kept pace with rapidly growing populations. If we don't speed up the pace of investment in sexual and reproductive health, we risk losing the gains we have made. If investments stay at current levels in Latin America and the Caribbean, each year we will lose 9,300 women and 107,000 newborns whose lives could have been saved.

The further behind we get, the harder it will be to catch up. That's why it is absolutely necessary that the global community national governments and international donors act quickly to ramp up investments in sexual and reproductive health services.

The benefits are well known. Women and girls who are able to plan their births and stay healthy are better able to complete their education, participate more fully and productively in the labour force, accumulate higher household savings, and raise healthier and better educated children. These family-level benefits accrue at the community and national levels, spurring economic development and growth.

The Guttmacher Institute has done the math: Investing US$31 per year per woman in Latin America and the Caribbean would provide a basic package of essential reproductive health services to protect her health and that of her newborn. These services include contraception, pregnancy, delivery and newborn-related care, care for pregnant women living with HIV, and treatment for other sexually transmitted infections.

The total required investment amounts to US$5.2 billion annually, nearly 20 per cent more than current spending. But the price-tag should not be a deal-breaker. On the contrary, it should be a priority. Investing in sexual and reproductive health has one of the highest rates of return in international development.

And, not all of this will come from donors; the bulk will come from government budgets and from the pockets of women themselves who receive the services.

In fact, investments in modern contraceptive services actually save money: For every additional dollar that is invested in preventing an unintended pregnancy, more than US$2.00 is saved in pregnancy-related care. Additional savings accrue across all sectors, from health care to education to employment.

Saving money is great, but saving and improving lives is even better. By satisfying all unmet need for reproductive health care, the number of unintended pregnancies and maternal deaths would plummet by 65 per cent, newborn deaths would drop by 70 per cent, and there would be a virtual elimination of new HIV infections in newborns.

As governments and international agencies consider development goals for 2015 and beyond, they should prioritise universal access to sexual and reproductive health services: these investments are a cornerstone of sustainable development, and every woman's right.

- Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is the executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Ann M. Starrs is the president and CEO of the Guttmacher Institute.