To end preventable deaths worldwide, we must focus on nutrition

This piece originally appeared in The Hill.

At homes across the United States last week, families gathered for Thanksgiving and enjoyed a feast of turkey, potatoes, vegetables and pie, or other culinary delights. But around the world, millions of mothers and children suffered from hunger and malnutrition on Thanksgiving, as they do every day.

And tragically, many of them will die. Each year, 5.9 million children under age 5 die from preventable causes – that’s 16,000 children dying every day, nearly half of whom are newborns. Malnutrition is the underlying cause of 45 percent of those deaths, and increases the risk of death from pneumonia and diarrhea.  Millions of refugees fleeing conflict in Syria add to existing food needs around the world.

But as heartbreaking as those numbers are – and they are difficult to comprehend – we have actually made great progress in the last 25 years. Today, 18,000 more children will survive and more than 600 maternal deaths will be averted than any day in 1990. We are in an extraordinary moment in human history: in the last 25 years, we have saved the lives of 100 million children under five, and have the potential to end all preventable child deaths in a generation. This is one of the great success stories in international development.

U.S. leadership, public and private partners working together, has helped build the capacity of communities and countries to care for their children. Since 2008, USAID’s maternal and child survival efforts have resulted in nearly 2.5 million more children surviving and 200,000 maternal deaths averted in USAID’s 24 priority countries.

This progress has been achieved with simple and proven solutions to address leading causes of preventable deaths, such as breastfeeding, immunizations, hand-washing, cleaning newly cut umbilical cords with an inexpensive antiseptic, and using antibiotics to treat otherwise routine medical complications.

But we can’t end preventable child and maternal deaths without a concerted focus on nutrition. In addition to killing millions of children, malnutrition makes them far more susceptible to life-threatening illness and can have permanent consequences, both physically and developmentally.

Poor nutrition during the first 1,000 days—the time between a woman’s pregnancy and her child’s second birthday—can have a lifelong impact. In addition to poor health, children can suffer from stunted and impaired physical and cognitive development.   Economically, poor nutrition can reduce a person’s lifetime earnings by 20 percent and reduce a nation’s economic advancement by at least 8 percent because of losses in direct productivity, poorer cognition and reduced schooling.

We know how to save the lives of mothers and kids around the world. And through efforts such as USAID’s nutrition programs and Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative, we’re working to combat global hunger and malnutrition.

A focus on nutrition and food security can ensure that children both survive and thrive. Last year alone the U.S. government reached more than 12 million children with effective nutrition interventions, helping to ensure that children around the world are better able to go to bed with food in their bellies.

We are encouraged by the recent surge in support and attention around maternal and child survival, health, and good nutrition. However, there is still more to be done.

This fall, more than 190 world leaders met at the United Nations General Assembly and voted to adopt 17 Sustainable Development Goals—new, ambitious policies aimed at improving the future of our world.  These goals include ending hunger and ensuring healthy lives, and a continued commitment to ending preventable deaths of mothers, newborns and children under the age of 5.

We encourage Congress to follow the president’s lead in proposing funding for global health this fiscal year for almost $2.8 billion, including $2 billion for programs to end preventable child and maternal deaths. Congress has yet to finalize its commitment for fiscal year 2016 but we are hopeful it will send a strong signal to our other partners and donors of the importance of robust investments.

We must do our part to ensure children everywhere have a strong start to life.

Shriver is president of Save the Children Action Network, the advocacy arm of Save the Children, and Pablos-Mendez is assistant administrator for Global Health, Child and Maternal Survival Coordinator for the United States Agency for International Development.