As global health advocates, we know that our messages can sometimes seem at odds. After all, one of us may be pointing out that millions of children could be saved every year through the use of simple, affordable interventions—tools that already exist. Meanwhile, the other may insist that to save children’s lives it’s essential to develop new health innovations.
Who’s right? Should we expand the use of existing technologies, or develop new ones?
A big job needs a big toolbox
Some 6.6 million children will die this year before they reach their fifth birthday, and more than half of their deaths could be prevented with simple, affordable interventions that already exist. It’s critical that governments fund maternal and child health programs to ensure children in low- and middle-income countries have access to proven interventions that can save them from diseases and conditions that largely have been addressed in high-income countries.
At the same time, existing technologies, as successful as they are, don’t address every illness, and not all are suitable for low-income countries. That’s why we also call for robust investments in research and development to create new health innovations. These new tools have the potential to save children from illnesses that cannot be prevented and treated with today’s technologies.
Save newborns now
Take newborn deaths as an example. Right now, 44 percent of all deaths in children under age five occur in the first month of life. About two-thirds of these newborns could be saved with existing technologies, such as chlorhexidine, a low-cost antiseptic used to clean newly cut umbilical cords and reduce the risk of infection. Even though this treatment exists and can prevent about a third of all deadly infections in newborns, each year improper umbilical cord care kills more than 300,000 newborns in their first days of life.
Think about it: at less than 50 cents per dose, this medicine could help avert hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by neonatal infections each year. Surely we must ensure that all newborns have access to this low-cost, high-impact intervention and others like it.
More tools, more impact
But what about the third of newborn deaths that can’t be prevented by existing technologies? These newborns need innovative drugs, devices, diagnostics, vaccines, and systems, and these innovations need research and development.
In the United States, for example, access to ventilators has helped us make progress in saving lives and reducing disability among premature babies whose lungs are not fully developed. Unfortunately, existing ventilators are expensive and complex to operate, making them unsuitable for many low-income settings.
That’s why PATH and our partners are advancing a new ventilator that’s low-cost, easy to use, safe, and built with parts commonly found in neonatal intensive care units in low-income countries.
Two tools are better than one
No matter where they are born, all babies should have the chance to survive and thrive. We improve their chances by increasing access to today’s proven health interventions and investing in tomorrow’s innovations. This cannot be an either/or proposition.