04/28/2014 12:05 EDT | Updated 06/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Stephen Harper Says Maternal And Child Health A Priority For Canada

TORONTO - An upcoming Toronto conference on child and maternal health in developing countries, that will bring together international leaders, experts and philanthropists, will help keep the world focused on a "great cause," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Monday.

"Canada has and can make a difference," Harper said at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, where he discussed details of the three-day international summit slated for May 28-30.

"We don't want to stand idly by while women and children around the world die for lack of things that are really just very basic, inexpensive remedies that we take for granted ...That's why we're holding the conference."

The summit is being held months before a key global program on the issue — the Muskoka Initiative — is set to wrap up in 2015.

Harper launched the Muskoka Initiative at the G8 summit hosted by Canada in 2010 and intended it to help address some sobering health figures in poor countries: the hundreds of thousands of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth each year and the millions of children who perish before age five.

The initiative was set up to target two of the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals that were found to be the most lacking — reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.

But as figures and information provided by the government have shown, the world is not on track to make the progress it was hoping for on those two development goals by 2015.

Harper said the Toronto summit — "Saving Every Woman, Every Child" — will help the international community move closer to those targets.

"There's more work to be done," he said. "We want to push forward until we achieve some of those development goals that the United Nations has set."

Harper added that reducing maternal, newborn and child mortality is the "centrepiece" of his government's international development policy.

"Why are we so engaged in this? Well there's really two things — first of all this is obviously something we care passionately about because it is the right thing to do," he said. "And what we've got in front of us are things that are doable, where we can achieve real positive results for our fellow human beings."

As part of the Muskoka Initiative, Canada provided $1.1 billion in new funding and committed to maintaining $1.75 billion of existing funding for maternal, newborn and child health programing — for a total of $2.85 billion over five years.

As the program ends in 2015, World Vision and the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health are calling for Canada to commit a fresh $3.25 billion over the next five years for child and maternal health.

"This summit is an opportunity for Canada to lead the way by taking new action," said World Vision President Dave Toycen, who was part of a group who met with Harper in Toronto on Monday. "If this global momentum can be harnessed, ending preventable deaths within a generation is within our grasp."

The federal government hasn't said what sort of financial commitment it will make past 2015.

But Rosemary McCarney of the Canadian Network for Maternal Newborn Child Health is hopeful that Ottawa will make a funding announcement after the Toronto summit, which she considers a crucial opportunity to plan for the future.

"It's to re-engage the global leaders," she said, adding that the summit would also allow Canadians to see what the country's efforts on child and maternal health have achieved.

"Canadians don't know the depth and breadth on this issue...and how well respected we are in all of the major fora and countries around the world."

Canada has the knowledge and expertise required to further reduce infant mortality and improve the health of mothers in poor countries, all that's needed to meet international targets is a renewed commitment to the issue over the next five years, said McCarney.

"We know what to do," she said. "Canadians can finish the job."

The upcoming summit will include United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, World Health Organization director-general Margaret Chan, and Melinda Gates among its international participants.

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