It seems that every week we hear about the latest piece of research into a new wonder drug or medical treatment. This focus on the new tends to neglect the fact one of the greatest challenges for humanity is ensuring access to existing medical resources and basic care.
Many of the world's most vulnerable people, especially women and children, die needlessly because of unequal access to health information, prevention and treatments. New medical interventions are critical to reducing the burden of disease, but too often the distribution of basic medical care is overlooked despite the fact it can quickly and cheaply improve the lives of millions.
Every year 7.6 million children under five die around the world. The International Federation of Red Cross' Eliminating Health Inequities report has found that millions of these deaths are preventable by improving access to basic health care, including relatively inexpensive treatments for diarrhoeal and respiratory diseases, preventing anaemia and eliminating worms and parasites. With 95 per cent of new born deaths occur in developing countries, countless more lives could be saved with improved maternal, prenatal and delivery care.
It would be wrong to think of this as a problem far removed from life in Australia and our region. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience a burden of disease that is two-and-a-half times higher than other Australians, while the Pacific has some of the highest rates of non-communicable disease, such as diabetes, in the world.
Global health inequities affect particular groups of people, such as women and children, the poor and marginalised ethnic groups. Health is a resource that enables people to achieve their fullest potential. It is profoundly unjust for this potential to be determined by the place where a person is born, their sex or the racial or ethnic group to which a person belongs.
Positively, eliminating these inequities is both achievable and economically sound. A key to improving global health is to make women and children the focus of aid and development work. This is because not only do many women and children suffer undue hardship, but also because women are instrumental in improving the health of their children, families and communities.
Women are more likely to face health inequities because of societal power imbalances and the fact pregnancy and childbirth are life events that expose women to greater risks. Also women are the gateway to improving the health of an entire population, starting with their children and members of their households.
With community based health programs in 54 countries helping more than 4.2 million people, the global Red Cross Red Crescent Movement is actively targeting health inequities. In Afghanistan, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, pioneering female health trainers working for the Afghanistan Red Crescent society have been travelling across the most remote parts of the country to educate female volunteers to deliver simple health messages and provide basic first aid in their communities.
Closer to home Red Cross is partnering with the Miwatj Aboriginal Health Corporation to deliver the Healthy Baby Healthy Community childhood development and parenting skills program with Aboriginal families in Galiwin'ku in the Northern Territory, while in New South Wales Red Cross' innovative Tucker Tracks program is providing food nutrition education using Aboriginal traditional knowledge and practices of caring for country to improve the health and wellbeing of children in the community.
Greater political and public commitment is essential in overcoming the fundamental economic and social barriers that prevent so many women and children from accessing the care to which they are entitled.This tried and tested work of bringing basic health care to vulnerable people, as well as breaking down the systemic barriers to accessing health resources, is crucial to saving and improving lives.
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