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Canada focused on maternal, child health ahead of summit in Toronto

GENEVA - A week before an international conference on maternal and child health care opens in Toronto, the Harper government is rolling out announcements on what it sees as its signature issue on the world stage.

In Geneva, Health Minister Rona Ambrose pledged $36 million over seven years to help improve the lives of women and children in sub-Saharan Africa.

Hours later in Calgary, Deepak Obhrai, the parliamentary secretary to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, unveiled another program to help mothers and children in South Sudan.

Ambrose was at the World Health Assembly in Geneva when she pledged the money to help pay for research in nine countries into the primary health care needs of mothers, newborns and children. The countries are Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, Mali, Senegal, South Sudan, Malawi and Nigeria.

Obhrai said Canada will put up $19.9 million over six years to staff and equip four mobile primary health care clinics and provide other services to 350,000 people in more than 600 remote communities in Warrap state, South Sudan.

Canada will also help train 1,500 community health volunteers, deliver 116,000 anti-malarial bed nets and build 170 safe drinking-water points.

The announcements come ahead of the May 28-30 conference in Toronto, which is aimed at helping to shape future action on maternal and child health problems.

The Harper government pushed mother and child health issues at the G8 summit in June 2010. Canada pledged to spend $2.85 billion between 2010 and 2015 to assist women and children in developing countries as part of what was called the Muskoka Initiative.

Canada and its G8 partners committed a total of $7.3 billion to improve the health of mothers and children in the world's poorest countries.

The federal government says 80 per cent of the money it pledged during the summit has already been disbursed.

"Under Canada's leadership, global attention and resources have been mobilized around maternal and child health issues," Ambrose said in a statement.

Obhrai said a lot remains to be done: "Tremendous progress has been made, but much more can be done to prevent mothers and children in developing countries from dying of simple, preventable diseases, malnutrition, and the lack of access to health care."

Ambrose said the Muskoka plan "has saved countless lives and improved the health of millions of mothers, newborns and children in the developing world."

Federal government figures say the number of women who die each year during pregnancy or childbirth has dropped by 47 per cent since 1990. There were 543,000 deaths that year compared with 287,000 in 2010.

During the same period, the number of deaths among children under the age of five has dropped 45 per cent from nearly 12 million in 1990 to 6.6 million in 2012.

"Maternal mortality rates are declining and millions more children are celebrating their fifth birthday," said International Development Minister Christian Paradis.

"Canada's leadership in this area reflects the values of millions of Canadians who believe that we cannot stand idly by while the poorest and most vulnerable suffer deaths that are easily and inexpensively prevented."

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