Melinda Gates talks with Rukmini, a young mother in the state of Uttar Pradesh, in north-central India.

Editor’s Note: Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Story highlights

Melinda Gates: Nearly 8 million children younger than 5 die each year

Inexpensive tools and education could save 70% of newborns who die, she says

Malnutrition increases risks for mothers and children, Gates says

Gates: 200 million women in developing countries need effective contraception

CNN  — 

Last year I traveled to a small village in Uttar Pradesh, India, where I met a young mother named Rukmini, who had recently given birth to a daughter. It was the sixth day of baby Durga’s life, and in keeping with Indian custom, Rukmini was preparing for a ceremony to celebrate the special bond between mother and child.

As Rukmini bathed and dressed her daughter in new clothes and then held Durga up to present her to the sun god to ask for blessings, I kept thinking about the incredible joy and hope I felt when each of my three children was born.

These are universal feelings mothers have, no matter where they live. Yet millions of women – especially in the world’s poorest countries – never get to hold a healthy baby in their arms. Although advances in vaccines, nutrition and family health have dramatically reduced the number of child deaths in the past 50 years, nearly 8 million children younger than 5 still die every year.

For me, this number is unacceptable, because most of these deaths could be avoided.

Many of the children who die are newborns. Up to 70% of infants could be saved with inexpensive tools such as antibiotics for infections, sterile blades to cut umbilical cords and education about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and keeping babies warm through skin-to-skin contact.

Mothers and children need food that is rich in vitamins and minerals, and when they don’t get it, malnutrition increases the risk of pregnancy complications for mothers and infections and death for children.

And more than 200 million women in developing countries need access to effective contraceptives. Without it, there will continue to be unnecessary maternal and child deaths associated with unintended or unplanned pregnancies.

On a visit not long ago to Nairobi, I met a woman who used contraceptives and limited her family to three children, which meant she had the resources to open a sewing business. With earnings from that business – and a smaller family to care for – she was able to make sure all of her children were well-fed and attending school. No matter where I go, this is what mothers want for their children – enough food and a chance to go to school so they can grow up healthy and prosperous.

By focusing on these fundamental issues and simple solutions, we can save millions of lives. And the great thing is we don’t have to wait for a major scientific breakthrough to know exactly what to do next.

There are already simple, proven ways to save millions more children, reduce unwanted pregnancies and keep mothers strong and healthy. But for that to happen, people around the world need to speak up so that governments make family health a priority. Working together, we all can help create a future where women everywhere have the knowledge and the power to save their lives and the lives of their babies.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Melinda Gates.