Mother-and-child health challenges persist globally

The Tennessean

This Mother's Day, moms in Tennessee and around the world have more to celebrate than ever before. Infant mortality rates are declining in many communities and many countries. Yet even today, where a woman gives birth determines dramatically different odds of survival for her child. We can, and must, change that.

A baby in Shelby County has a 1 in 77 chance of dying before her first birthday. In some of our rural counties, 1 in 45 babies die. Those frightening rates are on par with Sri Lanka and Mongolia, respectively.

Overall, the U.S. child mortality rate is worse than in 40 other countries. It's one of the main reasons Save the Children ranks our nation 31 out of 43 developed countries on the Mothers' Index of its new State of the World's Mothers report.

Within the United States, Tennessee has long had one of the worst infant mortality rates. But our state's effort to change that is paying off. We've moved up from 46th to 41st in the latest national comparison on child health. That's good news, but I'm sure you'll agree, it isn't nearly good enough.

Even in tough times, state programs making a difference — including Healthy Start, which makes home visits possible for new moms in rural areas — must be protected if we are to improve the health of moms and kids across the state. Healthy kids lead more fulfilling and productive lives. They create jobs and grow economies.

Children's programs face possible federal cuts

Together,we must speak up for mothers everywhere. Federal programs that have helped reduce global child mortality by a third in the last 20 years are in danger of major cuts.

Worldwide, 8 million children still die each year, mostly from preventable causes. Imagine if diarrhea or pneumonia became a death sentence for your child. This is a daily risk for millions of mothers with no access to trained health workers or the most basic, inexpensive medicines. In Afghanistan, one in seven infants dies.

Why should Tennesseans worry about this when we have our own challenges right here at home? First, it's not an either-or proposition. We should save every child's life when we know how to do it inexpensively and so well. It doesn't take much more than political will to give a child a real shot as a long, fulfilling life,

And it's more than that. When we save children's lives abroad, we help countries develop and give them hope. And when we do that, we help create the conditions for growth and prosperity.

That relates directly to Tennessee, where 44 of our 46 export industries are growing and our state benefits from nearly $26 billion in exports every year. U.S. economic growth increasingly depends on growing markets in developing countries. We are living in a world that is increasingly interconnected. Simply put, by helping mothers and their children everywhere, we help ourselves.

So, as we celebrate this day for mothers, let's make a bold commitment to improve the lives of mothers and children in communities across the globe.

Bill Frist, a heart surgeon, served Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007. He is co-chairman of Save the Children's newborn and child survival campaign.