Today, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), announced a new collaboration that aims to improve maternal and newborn health in conflict-affected countries through the creation of a multi-country research consortium. With funding provided by UK Aid from the UK government, the $11.3 million contract will be led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) alongside the Institute of Human Virology Nigeria, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and its university-wide Center for Humanitarian Health, the Somali Research and Development Institute (SORDI), and Université Catholique de Bukavu (Democratic Republic of Congo).

The announcement has been made on World Patient Safety Day, which this year is focusing on safe maternal and newborn care.

Called EQUAL – Ensuring Quality Access and Learning for Mothers and Newborns in Conflict-Affected Contexts -- this $11.3 million contract is one of the largest research investments to date on the topic in humanitarian contexts and will work to identify and fill evidence gaps that could ultimately improve policies, programming, and outcomes for mothers and newborns. The project will focus its research around the day of birth and the first week of life, the timeframe with the highest number of newborn deaths globally. In 2019 alone, 2.4 million babies died in the first month of life, 75% of which occurred in the first week.

The consortium will conduct research in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan -- countries and regions where maternal and newborn mortality rates rank among the highest in the world. In Nigeria, for example, 35 newborn babies die for every 1,000 live births -- a devastating statistic that is nearly ten times higher than the risk faced by newborns in high-income countries.

In addition to delivering cutting-edge research, EQUAL will invest in opportunities for partners and key stakeholders to share expertise and strengthen their technical, research, and operational capacities. This includes dedicated training and mentorship for female researchers as well as using the research findings to inform national health policies and guidelines.

The need for this work has become even more apparent in the face of COVID-19, as mobility restrictions, fear of transmission, and limited resources continue to prevent women from accessing safe delivery and postpartum care.  A recent data review revealed that health outcomes have severely deteriorated for both mothers and babies around the world during the pandemic with stillbirth and maternal death rates increasing by about one-third.

“Long before COVID-19, we were seeing maternal mortality ratios that were five times higher and newborn mortality rates that were double the global average in some contexts where the IRC works,” said Dr. Naoko Kozuki, Co-Research Director for EQUAL at the IRC.  “Despite these inexcusably high rates, women in need have been consistently overlooked. Now more than ever, it is critical that we invest in both maternal and newborn health research and programs in conflict-affected countries to better understand and effectively address the causes contributing to such high rates of mortality. We are excited to work with our partners to stop this cycle and ensure women and their newborn babies receive the care they both need and deserve.”

Dr. Kozuki will co-direct the consortium with Professor Paul Spiegel, Director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Lara Ho, Director of Strategic Initiatives of IRC’s Health Technical Unit, will serve as CEO.

The work advanced by the EQUAL consortium is part of the IRC’s commitment to global research and innovation on sexual, reproductive, maternal, and neonatal health. By generating new evidence and exploring cutting-edge approaches, the IRC aims to reduce maternal and newborn mortality, and ensure women and girls receive high-quality, respectful, confidential care tailored to their needs and preferences.