A decade ago, four out of every five cases of polio worldwide were in India. Thanks to a determined effort to eradicate the disease, there has not been a single case for more than a year.
This achievement deserves global attention. First, because it serves as a model for other countries where polio remains endemic. Second, because it gives hope for similar success in tackling other major health challenges. Among these, none is more important than improving the health of the world's women and children.
That need is particularly great in India, host to the world's highest incidence of maternal and child mortality. Each year, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of five die from largely preventable causes. More than 60,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth. To be sure, these mortality rates have fallen steadily with the country's dramatic economic and social advances. Yet India is still not on track to meet key Millennium Development Goals (MDG) by the target date of 2015 — most specifically, those related to reducing child and maternal mortality and access to universal reproductive health care.
India is by no means alone. Worldwide, approximately seven million children under five die each year from preventable causes. Roughly 3,50,000 women lose their lives from complications in pregnancy and child-birth. That is why, two years ago, I launched Every Woman Every Child. In that short span, it has become a genuinely global movement, backed by billions of dollars in concrete financial commitments from an unprecedented array of private and public partners united behind the goal of saving the lives of 16 million women and children. Every Woman Every Child recognises that each woman and child on the planet is an individual of value. Each belongs to a family and an increasingly global community.
As I see it, protecting their health is an investment in our common future.
India was among the first to support this great and noble cause. In the last 18 months, we have seen that commitment implemented through determined and innovative action on a national and local scale. The Indian government has committed to spend more than $3.5 billion annually to improve health services. A substantial portion of that will go to women's and children's health, with special focus on regions where the incidence of death is highest.
As it grapples with these difficult issues, India has become a stand-out in pioneering new social programmes. Thanks to the creative use of cash incentives, for example, it is encouraging more and more women to give birth in health facilities, where free care is available to mother and child. An ambitious new programme sponsored by the ministry of labour and employment aims to extend health insurance benefits to the entire population living below the poverty line — 300 million people — by 2013. This will be a remarkable achievement, and one that other countries should emulate.
India is also using technology in creative new ways. Example: mobile phones. India has one of the highest usage rates in the world. With nearly 97% of the population expected to own a cell phone by 2014, it is exciting to see how new public-private partnerships are being used to deliver vital health information — and, increasingly, remote health care — to new and expectant mothers.
There's a larger dimension to ventures such as these. To accelerate progress on women's and children's health, as with other vital issues, we need to harness the power of partnerships. Government alone cannot offer effective and cost-efficient solutions to all challenges. That is why it is so encouraging to see more and more Indian business leaders stepping up to their social responsibilities.
Like never before, India's private sector is coming together to support programmes that advance women's and children's health. These include practical initiatives to reduce the high incidence of diarrhoea (which takes so many young lives) by improving water supplies and making oral rehydration salts and zinc tablets available to a broader population. More than 2,00,000 children die each year from this affliction; nine out of 10 could be saved if they received these basic treatments.
There is, of course, a lot more to do. The solutions are in our hands. Together, we can ensure that infants reach a healthy birth weight; that pregnant women receive the right clinical care at the right time; that sick baby girls receive the same quality of care and attention as sick boys. We can prevent malaria and tuberculosis and help free a new generation from HIV. Our collective efforts must also promote women's equality and empowerment — starting by meeting their needs for family planning and extending through equal opportunity for education and employment.
As I visit this extraordinary country this week, I am full of optimism and great confidence. It is an exciting time to be in India — the world's largest democracy, an increasingly global leader that uses its influence to support progress at home and peace abroad. The fact that India has achieved (or is close to achieving) the MDGs in some parts of the country is an eloquent sign of hope for the future. New progress on women's and children's health will only add to the country's dynamism. If it achieves the success in this realm that it did with polio, the sky is India's only limit.
Ban Ki-moon is UN Secretary-General. He begins his official visit to India tomorrow. The views expressed by the author are personal.