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New Statement from WHO and UNICEF Could Save Women’s Lives

What if there was a drug that could save the lives of millions of women in developing countries? And what if that drug was safe, affordable, and approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an “essential medicine?” Turns out that drug actually exists. It’s called oxytocin, and it can save moms’ lives if they start hemorrhaging after giving birth. Sounds like a no brainer to ensure this drug is available for women giving birth, right? Well, it is, except oxytocin is temperature-sensitive, meaning it needs to be kept cold or it becomes much less effective at saving women’s lives — and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

Oxytocin can save a woman's life if she has post-partum hemorrhaging. But if it's left outside the refrigerator, it becomes much less effective — and sometimes it doesn't work at all.
Oxytocin can save a woman’s life if she has post-partum hemorrhaging. But if it’s left outside the refrigerator, it becomes much less effective — and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

Luckily, in many developing countries there is already a cold chain (temperature controlled supply chain from manufacturer to user) in place, mainly for vaccinations. Despite the relatively well run cold chain, oxytocin and other temperature-sensitive drugs are often not included in the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) supply chain.

Hopefully this is about to change.

Last month, WHO and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released a joint statement encouraging the convergence of temperature sensitive medications on the cold chain. This statement comes after 2014 guidance was released urging countries and partners to integrate other temperature sensitive products into the EPI supply chain, with specific mention of oxytocin. Integration of oxytocin into the existing cold chain has been a goal of the United Nations Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. And while this joint statement and 2014 guidance is a step in the right direction, WHO and UNICEF need ensure essential drugs, including oxytocin, are actually included as part of the cold chain.

Postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) is the leading cause of maternal death. WHO recommends oxytocin as the first-line drug to prevent and treat PPH, and therefore it’s essential for ending preventable maternal death. Countries and partners, with support from WHO and UNICEF, should implement the guidance and ensure oxytocin is included as part of the existing cold chain. Doing so could be the difference between life and death for women in developing countries.

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