Saving Lives in West Africa: All Hands on Deck

This blog post originally appeared on MSH's Health Impact Blog.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

This ubiquitous African proverb became the unofficial motto of the first ECOWAS Forum on Good Practices in Health, held July 29-31 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. More than 300 health professionals, researchers, donors, implementing partners, and stakeholders gathered at the conference, hosted by the West African Health Organization (WAHO), a partner of Management Sciences for Health.

A break-out session at the first ECOWAS Forum on Good Practices in Health, held July 29-31 in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. (Photo: Joan Marshall-Missiye/MSH)

In his opening speech, USAID West Africa Regional Mission Director Alex Deprez reminded the assembly that most maternal and child health indicators in West Africa are “unflattering.” The average fertility rate remains the highest in the world at 5.7, while the contraceptive prevalence rate, at 10 percent, is the lowest. West Africa loses thousands of mothers and young children daily to preventable complications and diseases. More than 100 children in West Africa die per 1,000 live births, and there are between 438 and 888 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) must promote an “all-hands-on-deck approach to harmonize member states’ policies, pool resources … and cooperate to find a collective and strategic solution to the health problems of the sub-region,” said WAHO’s Director General, Dr. Xavier Crespin.

About 80 talks and 30 posters were presented at the conference by health providers, researchers, instructors, independent professionals, and representatives from ministries of health and international and local non-governmental organizations.

Participants shared a wealth of practices that foster reproductive, maternal, and child health, including:

  • Establishing Quality Improvement Teams at the community level through a collaborative approach;
  • Involving religious leaders in the promotion of healthy sexual and reproductive practices, especially among youth and adolescents;
  • Engaging men to boost the uptake of family planning methods and maternal services;
  • Creating village-based solidarity health funds to help residents, particularly pregnant women and children under 5, afford transportation during obstetric and other emergencies.

Key messages included:

  • Leadership means “enabling groups to make progress in complex conditions,” and it “takes place at all levels, not just a position of authority, as expressed by L+M+G (Leadership, Management and Governance) panelist, Dr. Emmanuel Otolorin, Country Director of Jhpiego Nigeria;
  • Good practices need to be documented at all levels of the health system for advocacy as well as replication and scale-up;
  • The Abuja Declaration of Heads of State and Governments called for nations to allocate 15 percent of their budgets to health; most Member States have not reached that target.

MSH helped organize the forum and select speakers. Several speakers also represented MSH:

  • LMS/Haiti Project Director Sandra Guerrier demonstrated how L+M+G practices made a lasting impact on the Haitian health system. Moderated by MSH Principal Technical Advisor Emmanuel Le Perru, the panel also featured presentations from the World Health Organization, Jhpiego, and WAHO.
  • MSH Project Associate Katie Martin presented an abstract she co-authored on how equipping midwives with L+M+G skills improves reproductive and maternal and child health indicators.
  • Colin Gilmartin, MSH Technical Officer, shared the African Strategies for Health (ASH) project’s publication, “A Corridor of Contrasts,” highlighting health issues of people along the Abidjan-to-Lagos corridor.

“The forum…surpassed my expectations,” said Namoudou Keita, Primary Health Care Program Manager at WAHO and conference technical coordinator. “I hope now that the WAHO staff will stay engaged and that we—particularly the reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health professionals—follow up…to push forward the key recommendations.”

Recommendations will be presented at the next assembly of West African ministries of health.