WHO’s Bustreo delivers Dean’s Distinguished Lecture with a ‘hidden agenda’ to inspire students to join fight for women’s and children’s health

March 29, 2011 — Marking the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, Flavia Bustreo (right), assistant director-general for women and children’s health at the World Health Organization, reminded an HSPH audience that survival is a challenge for many women around the world. Every day, 1,000 women die in the act of giving birth, Bustreo said, and 10,000 newborns die from preventable complications.

In accepting the invitation to speak as part of the ongoing Dean’s Distinguished Lecture series on March 8, 2011, Bustreo said that her “hidden agenda” was to inspire students to join the cause of improving health for the world’s poorest women and children. She highlighted the important role that academic research on deficiencies in this area had in the creation of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a series of targeted global health and anti-poverty commitments.

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A world-renowned physician with a career in international health, Bustreo has played a leading role in the global prioritization of women’s and children’s health. She contributed to last year’s Lancet report, Countdown to 2015 Decade Report (2000-2010): Taking Stock of Maternal, Newborn, and Child Survival, and is a member of the United Nations taskforce on the MDGs to reduce maternal and child mortality. She is also a board member of The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, which is chaired by HSPH Dean Julio Frenk.

Bustreo outlined progress toward Goals 4 and 5, which relate to women’s and children’s health. There has been little progress in Africa and insufficient progress in Asia on reducing child mortality, Bustreo said. Maternal mortality is declining worldwide, but at a slower rate than what’s needed to reach the target of a 75 percent reduction by the MDG deadline in 2015. Read more progress reports from the United Nations.

She recommended that the public health community focus on improving the “continuum of care” for the world’s poorest women and children. This involves a package of interventions to improve women’s health before, during, and after pregnancy, and follows their children from the womb to adulthood. Some of the interventions she recommended, such as mass delivery of vitamin A, have achieved significant coverage. Others, including prevention of malaria in pregnant women and treatment of diarrhea in children under five have a long way to go, she said.

Bustreo described other systemic challenges to improving women’s and children’s health, including protecting the rights of women in the labor force and changing delivery and funding mechanisms for development aid. She argued for sustainable domestic systems that deliver services to women and children where and when they need them, and empower women with financial decision-making.

Ana Langer, professor of the practice of public health and coordinator of the Dean’s Special Initiative in Women and Health at HSPH, gave introductory remarks.

–Amy Roeder