Gates, Slim target maternal, newborn health in Central America

The foundations of the two of the world's richest men are stepping up efforts to use innovative data and mobile technology to end easily preventable deaths of mothers and newborns in the poorest pockets of Mexico and Central America.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation together with the Carlos Slim Foundation are preparing to launch next year a second phase of Salud Mesoamerica, a program hailed by experts as a success story.

The $170 million program, also backed by Spain, the Inter-American Development Bank and local governments, is part of a trend in aid financing that uses independently collected data to measure results achieved by government programs and conditions financing on meeting targets.

Governments "are learning how to access rural communities," Melinda Gates told Reuters in an interview this week at the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference 2015 in Mexico City.

Inequality across Latin America is much deeper than in many parts of the world, and unprecedented surveys by Salud Mesoamerica revealed that pockets of Central America were on a par with the poorest parts of Africa when it came to rates of malnutrition or lack of access to health services.

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The Carlos Slim Foundation aims to deploy a program it runs in 11 states in Mexico that uses mobile technology and special software to monitor pregnant women in rural areas, improve nutrition and make sure those with problematic pregnancies get special attention.

"It is like an algorithm that allows us to go step by step so that none of the crucial elements of prenatal care are forgotten," said Roberto Tapia, director of Slim's foundation.

Another important part of the program is the "openness of the data," which is being compiled by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

"I can go to a specific region and a specific state ... in Mexico and I can look and see exactly how we are doing on maternal health, child health and neonatal deaths," Gates said. "That tells me as a government how to act."