We Can't Save Children's Lives Alone | Opinion

A child under the age of five dies somewhere in the world every six seconds, largely from preventable diseases. More than 5 million patients need cleft care. Over 5 billion people—more than 63 percent of the world's population—lack access to safe surgical care. Even as countries mobilize resources against COVID-19, essential health services for women and children are still being diverted and deprioritized. The opposite needs to happen.

This is a call to action: We cannot let children worldwide continue to die preventable deaths.

As the co-founder and a surgeon of Operation Smile, the world's largest surgical volunteer-based nonprofit, we work to find ways to help as many patients as possible, providing cleft surgeries and life-saving medical care to more than 300,000 children in the last 40 years. We're proud of the work we do, but millions of children are still dying each year. Today we call on NGOs and governments to embrace a new model to slow and ultimately stop child mortality.

Our proposal is simple: Partner. Empower. Invest. Solving these challenges would mean lives saved, and investments that build infrastructure and improve whole health systems.

As critical as government-to-government cooperation is in addressing shared health goals, governments alone can't solve these problems. It is vital that the NGO and private sectors continue to ramp up bilateral and multilateral cooperation to do our part to ensure that every child has access to quality medical care. The same spirit of cooperation that we have seen over the past two years—scientists working across borders in real-time to sequence the virus, companies working together to develop vaccines, frontline health practitioners toiling day and night to save lives—is exactly what we need across all medical challenges, including lack of access to safe surgery.

Here's how.

First, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved by scaling up partnerships and increasing collaboration. As we expand international medical cooperation to combat COVID-19, we need to similarly ramp up partnerships and investments to address the systemic shortcomings that left us vulnerable to the pandemic—and so many other shared health challenges—in the first place.

Let's take Malaria as an example. Malaria claimed nearly 409,000 lives in 2019, mostly in developing countries, but new treatments, as well as simple techniques such as mosquito nets, can be further scaled through international partnerships.

We see this in our own work as well. Our organization works in partnership with local ministries of health, hospitals and health professionals to provide lifesaving cleft surgery and care in more than 30 countries. Other international medical service organizations, including Médicines Sans Frontières, International Medical Corps and Mothers 2 Mothers have been similarly laying the groundwork in their respective fields, by prioritizing partnership and infrastructure development over "drop in" medical care.

A girl plays with a volunteer nurse
A girl plays with a volunteer nurse before undergoing surgery in Managua on April 26, 2016. Some 200 Nicaraguan children born with a cleft lip or palate a congenital defect that prevents them talking, eating and breathing properly are being operated by doctors with the charity Operation Smile, with the support of the Nicaraguan government. INTI OCON/AFP via Getty Images

Second, governments, NGOs and private actors must empower local practitioners—particularly women—with the training, tools and support they need to transform their communities. When we brought together our first all-female medical team in Morocco, we saw the power of women to connect care to communities in need. That surgical program brought together more than 95 female medical volunteers from 20 countries; our all-female surgeon team was composed of physicians from Russia, Morocco, the Philippines, Ecuador, Peru, Sweden and Mexico. Such international cooperation not only enhances direct care in the host country but enhances capacity and knowledge for all practitioners, which they take home with them to enhance care in their own communities.

There is no lack of medical talent in the developing world, but historically practitioners have lacked basic supplies or sufficient training, especially in the most advanced or newest life-changing techniques. That's why we—and so many of our peer organizations—are committed to expanding training curricula for local medical practitioners throughout all our surgical and comprehensive care programs.

Finally, together we must invest. Today, in this op-ed, Operation Smile is announcing a 10-year commitment to increase access to safe care for 1 million patients who need cleft or other essential surgeries. This is a bold ambition that will combine direct patient care with significant investments in local hospitals, creating long-term partnerships that increase availability of care, use of services and quality outcomes. Since the outset of the pandemic, foundations and leading global corporations like Johnson & Johnson and Bristol Myers Squibb have also announced new and bold investments in health infrastructure.

When a cross-section or combination of NGOs, corporate leaders and foundations make investments in new fields and geographies, and to the next generation of practitioners, we can realize sustainable solutions on the community level, leading to measurable impact across countries.

For the United States and other countries from the Global North, partnership, empowerment and investment are moral necessities: health crises in any one part of the globe affect us all. For countries in the Global South, such partnerships are a true sign of solidarity and respect that build up local medical capacity and save lives. Beyond our respective interests, however, such cooperation is the roadmap to saving children's lives this decade. As the pandemic has laid bare, all nations must increase capacity, efficiency and delivery to meet the health challenges of all our citizens—children and all. We can only confront global health crises in our own communities by working together.

For those who say we can't realistically reduce child mortality, or stretch our resources and expertise further, we say simply: we must. We've seen the impact of collaboration in the faces of children, who were once shunned and are now cared for. We know the impact that working together can bring to a child, a family and a country.

As doctors, we have a shared interest in scaling global cooperation even further to once and for all eradicate inequity in health care for children. Let's take the lessons of the last two years and scale them to achieve the greatest good of all—embracing our shared responsibility to children everywhere.

Dr. Bill Magee is the co-founder and CEO of Operation Smile.

Dr. Wafaa Mradmi is a plastic surgeon based in Morocco.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.