12/11/2014 05:47 EST | Updated 02/10/2015 05:59 EST

A Glimpse of Canadian Dollars at Work, Saving Lives in Senegal

I recently travelled more than 6,500 kilometres to see our tax dollars at work. What I saw were lives being saved for less than the cost of a cup of takeout coffee. All Canadians should be proud.


I recently travelled more than 6,500 kilometres to see our tax dollars at work. What I saw were lives being saved for less than the cost of a cup of takeout coffee. All Canadians should be proud.

I was in Dakar, Senegal for the 15th Summit of La Francophonie, a 57-member international organization united by the French language. Canada is its second-largest donor, behind France. I attended as part of the Canadian delegation and in my role as chair of the Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. And at the Summit, former Canadian Governor General Michaëlle Jean was elected the incoming president. The trip was short, but extremely productive.

In between the formal sessions, our delegation visited two community health clinics. At one, we watched a child receive a vitamin A capsule, marking eight billion, yes billion, doses provided by the Micronutrient Initiative. Canada began this innovative body that works across the world and has helped save four million lives in its global fight against vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Established in 1998, the initiative plans to deliver some 400 million vitamin A and zinc supplements annually over the next five years to children under the age of five so that children not only survive but thrive.‎

To help reach this and other nutrition-related goals, Canada announced a $150 million contribution to the initiative, part of the government's ongoing commitment to eliminate unnecessary deaths among pregnant women and young children. While great progress has been achieved over the years -- for example, reducing by nearly 50 per cent the number of children who die annually from preventable diseases -- some 6.3 million still perish needlessly every year.

A malnourished child is fed at a Plan-supported centre in Senegal.

Photo: Plan / Unni Krishnan

In areas where food is in short supply or expensive, obtaining a proper diet is a major challenge. Undernourishment alone kills more than three million children annually. Vitamin A deficiency is but one piece of the puzzle. If children under five don't get sufficient vitamin A, they can go blind. If they don't get any, they can die--and at least one study estimates that up to 2.5 million deaths could be saved with proper vitamin A nutriture.

The annual cost for vitamin A supplements for a child for one year is four cents. Even when one factors in the cost of delivery by a health professional, the cost averages about $1.20 annually.

If children eat healthy diets, they place fewer demands on the healthcare system. They can then focus on school and later on pick up a profession or learn valuable skills that will allow them to contribute to their community's economic growth. One study suggests that improved nutrition in developing nations can boost a country's economic productivity by as much as three per cent.

The second clinic we visited was full of mothers with happy faces who were bringing their children in for routine care. The moms were coming to get their newborns and toddlers vaccinated. They want to protect them against diarrhea, tetanus, pneumonia, measles and polio, all killer diseases that are easily preventable.

The mothers showed me their immunization cards with pride. More and more of these moms are getting vaccines for their children. This, in turn, encourages other mothers in the community to take the same precautions. That ripple effect translates into better pre- and post-natal care that will save countless lives.

To further support child vaccination efforts such as at this clinic, Canada announced a further $500 million contribution to immunize vulnerable children in developing nations. The money, along with the $150 million micronutrient initiative donation, is part of the $3.5 billion overall commitment Canada made this past May toward maternal, newborn and child health over the next five years.

Ottawa has done its part, and we now have to deliver the programs on the ground. Now that Canadian dollars have been committed, it is up to all of us -- not just NGOs, other civil society groups, and healthcare providers -- to make sure the money is well spent.

With vulnerable lives at stake, we owe it to ourselves, and to the people those dollars are helping, to make sure we see the best return on our investment.