Dr. Cyril Engmann, world-renowned expert in newborn health, is PATH’s director of Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health and Nutrition (MNCHN). Deborah Kidd, senior communications officer for the Vaccine Development Program at PATH, shares excerpts from her interview with Cyril about his team’s work, his vision for integration, and reflections on his newest role.
Q: Tell me why a focus on mothers is pivotal for global health and development.
A: We all appreciate the incredible role that mothers play. Without them, the data suggest mortality rates increase significantly in their children. Mothers are children’s best advocates, and being able to empower, educate, and equip mothers (and fathers) to be able to advocate confidently for their children is very powerful.
Q: How does PATH’s MNCHN Program integrate a focus on those first critical newborn weeks with further healthy development?
A: I saw this in action when I traveled to South Africa and Mozambique to visit our Windows of Opportunity project, a comprehensive focus on a child’s first 1,000 days. This is a critical time period that shapes long-term physical, cognitive, and emotional health.
Early childhood development is the next frontier in MNCH. We’ve had a survival lens for the last 10-15 years, and necessarily so. But now we need to broaden to not just ensuring a child is surviving, but also thriving.
PATH is carving a niche role leveraging the health system to mediate early childhood development, including focusing on the mother before, during, and after pregnancy and integrating education and surveillance on developmental milestones and assessments of risk factors with routine clinic visits, etc. It was terrific to see how excited the health care workers were to implement and then witness the benefits of early childhood development and the commitment of families, especially mothers, to this.
We are helping clinicians and families anticipate a child’s health needs and proactively recognize when early development milestones aren’t being met. An ounce of prevention is always better than a pound of cure. Now they can intervene early, during the most critical period of time, to make a long-term impact.
Q: The Every Mother, Every Newborn Plan is a very practical resource for countries; it reminds me of the Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhea (GAPP-D). Now that we have both of these plans in hand and in practice, do you see an opportunity for further integration?
A: I’m a firm believer in the power of thinking big “with the lid off” so to speak. I believe that if one does not have a vision, a sense of how one can make things work, and then a means to measure that effort, it definitely won’t happen. I think we should integrate further; it’s almost irresponsible of us not to.
A lot of people might say that is blue-sky thinking. But how much would the sum of the parts be, how audaciously huge, if we could harness more efforts? To paraphrase Nelson Mandela: “Everything seems impossible until you do it.” With the Every Newborn Plan, some people thought that was too blue-sky, and now it’s come to pass. There have been mothers who have looked at their children who are critically ill, even with doctors saying they are going to die, and some of them have kept that blue-sky approach and their children have lived.
Is broader integration blue-sky? Maybe. Is it impossible? I’d say not.
Read the full interview with Dr. Engmann on PATH’s Defeat Diarrheal Disease website.
Guest contributor Deborah Kidd is a senior communications officer for the Vaccine Development Program at PATH.