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How Primary Maternal-Child Healthcare Reduces Mortality among Mothers and Children throughout the World: A Historical and Personal Reflection on Progress and Missed Opportunities  

Nicholas Cunningham

In the first decades of the 21st century, despite major medical advances, women in the least developed parts of the world are dying in childbirth far more often than women in wealthier nations, and their children are far more likely to die before reaching age 5. The major reason for this is that healthcare in these areas lacks its foundation: basic primary maternal and child healthcare (MCH). Two early examples of primary MCH care showed that the high death rates for mothers and children could be reduced substantially at low cost: David Morley’s Under-Fives Clinic in Western Nigeria, which began in the 1960s, and the Aroles’ Jamkhed Project in Maharashtra State in India, which began in the early 1970s. The lessons learned from these two early projects were also highlighted as principles at the Alma Ata International Primary Care Conference in 1978. They included: 1. Integration of basic curative care with the various aspects of promotive/preventive care, the former building the trust required for full acceptance of the less-understood aspects of the latter, such as immunizations, family planning, and exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life. 2. Heavy reliance on well-supervised lower-level health workers (including community health workers) to reach entire target populations. 3. Reliable delivery of a limited formulary of common, low-cost medical supplies and medications. 4. Partnerships among government ministries of health, education, and finance with communities and with local, national and international non-governmental organizations, and, 5. Gradual buildup as the health system and the communities enhance their capacity to support the work, so that success builds on success. It is past time for building primary MCH and eventually total population-based care systems everywhere. The first and biggest benefit will be in least developed societies, where the present rate of preventable mother and child deaths is unconscionable.