At APPPAH's conference last November, we launched a new campaign – The Healthy Baby Project 2020. The brainchild of APPPAH members Deborah Puterbaugh and Peter Prontzos, the aim of the Project is to make the right to a healthy pregnancy, birth, and infancy a reality for all women and children. This goal is already recognized by UNICEF as a fundamental human right, and a legally binding international obligation.
At the APPPAH conference in 2010, Dr. Marti Glenn, noted that,
Economists, writers, and researchers are beginning to discover what we have known for decades: that the events and environment surrounding pre-conception, pregnancy, birth, and early infancy set the template out of which we live our lives.
She also highlighted the most important point of all: that it is relatively easy and inexpensive to prevent damage in the first place. For instance, a father's supportive involvement during pregnancy can play a role in reducing infant mortality.
Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman points out that every dollar invested 'in the very young' not only saves lives and prevents illness, but will save from $4-17 dollars in future costs. Around 400,000 women die each year in childbirth from complications which could easily be prevented. Most of them could be saved for the cost of...six fighter jets. Protecting mothers and children requires dealing with related issues, such as poverty, women's rights, the lack of medical care, and so on. The most horrific figure is this: over 22,000 children die every day from hunger and preventable diseases – 9 million every year. Those who survive will be damaged for the rest of their lives.
Social Determinants of Health
The single greatest negative influence on one's health – especially that of babies – is social and economic inequality. This is just as true for wealthy countries as it is for poor ones, since "high levels of inequality have a negative impact on population health in both rich and poor nations alike."
It is obvious that trying to "live" on $2/day or less is dangerous to one's physical or emotional health, but almost half the world's population is trapped in this predicament. In North America, the primary factors that shape our health are not lifestyle choices, but rather our living conditions – how income and wealth is distributed, whether or not we are employed, and if so, by the working conditions.
Almost everything that is vital to a healthy community, from mental illness to crime rates to infant mortality, is affected by how equal – or unequal – a society is. In other words, our health, for the most part, is determined less by individual decisions and more by social and economic factors, like the quality of housing, food, and social services. The lack of these necessities also leads to severe stress, with all of its serious health consequences, for parents and children alike.
Moreover, problems in the womb, at birth, or in early childhood affect brain and biological development and may leave an epigenetic memory that affects gene function. "Biological embedding" may help explain why health disadvantages linked to a lower socio-economic origin — including obesity, mental health problems, heart disease, diabetes and other chronic illnesses — can last a lifetime even if living conditions improve later. Poverty can also lead to significant brain damage. Researchers have found that U.S. children from "low socioeconomic environments" displayed a brain response that was similar "to the response of people who have had a portion of their frontal lobe destroyed by a stroke".
The most important point is that the measures required to provide a healthy prenatal and perinatal environment are not expensive. Saving 6 million poor children every year would cost only $5.1 billion - a tiny fraction of what we spend on advertising, corporate subsides, or the military.
Footnote: In Canada, child advocates are working together to remind the federal government of its international legal obligations. In early February, Lynell Anderson and Susan Harney, from the Coalition of Child Care Advocates of BC, along with representatives of several other children's rights groups, traveled to Geneva to appear before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and present their brief, "A Tale of Two Canadas: Implementing Rights in Early Childhood." The United States is only one of two countries that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The other is Somalia.