What FP2020 Can Learn from Voyager 1: Beyond World Contraception Day

What FP2020 Can Learn from Voyager 1: Beyond World Contraception Day

 {Photo credit: MSH}The manager of a community health center dispenses family planning commodities in Mali.Photo credit: MSH

Earlier this month, NASA confirmed that Voyager 1 reached the border of the solar system. This momentous occasion is a major milestone in space exploration. As we close World Contraception Day (WCD2013), September 26, there are many lessons we can learn from Voyager on our journey beyond WCD2013 toward access for voluntary family planning for all.

For those who are too young to remember or have little interest in space exploration, suffice it to say that so far no human attempt to learn about our solar system has given us so much knowledge about  planets, rings, and satellites, as Voyager 1, NASA's biggest planetary expedition, launched 36 years ago.

What can the international public health community learn from Voyager 1 this WCD2013?

Lesson 1: How to make a dream possible by understanding the facts and setting goals.

Voyager 1 started with a dream of reaching our solar system’s big planets and confirming  the few facts we knew about Jupiter and Saturn. NASA set the course for a meticulous scientific goal that resulted in four planets explored and 22 fascinating moons discovered.

In family planning, we know the facts: today more than 222 million women in low- and middle-income countries have an unmet need for modern contraception due to a range of issues, including lack of accessibility, affordability, and of acceptability of current contraceptives. The burden for women and girls is excruciating: every day 785 women die due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth; every year, there are 80 million unplanned pregnancies.

Governments, donors, and civil society organizations partnering in the Family Planning 2020 Initiative (FP2020) set the goal to give an additional 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries access to lifesaving family planning information, services and supplies by 2020. The global community also needs to sustain coverage for the 260 million women currently using contraceptives.

The results and returns on this collective effort will mean that 300,000 fewer women and girls will die in pregnancy and childbirth and three million fewer infants will die from complications in their first year of life. Like NASA in the Voyager mission, FP2020 is helping us see the goal of saving millions of lives through contraception as less remote and more manageable.

Lesson 2: Management, determination, collaboration, and action for efficiency and success

With an original price tag of nearly a billion dollars when it was launched in 1977 (similar in constant dollars to last year's $ 2.6 billion raised in the Family Planning London Summit), managing resources efficiently is another lesson the Voyager mission can teach other visionary projects like FP2020. The utilization of current technology and creation of new ones, the management of decisionmaking, and the organization of networks of scientists ensured the success of the mission. 

Supporting access to contraceptives to millions of poor women in low- and middle-income countries is a mammoth effort that requires concerted determination, coordination, and action of thousands of large and small groups, political influencers and social activists, leaders and managers, donors and governments, researchers and implementers, providers and community health workers. To help ensure access to all women, especially the marginalized and hard-to-reach, we can:

  • Develop campaigns with champion family planning providers including community health workers to reduce providers’ barriers (e.g. cultural, religious, myths) to contraceptive methods, such as these successful campaigns in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda.
  • Cultivate innovative social media campaigns with champion users, especially young people, such as emergency contraception for young married and non-married women.
  • Work with gatekeepers, especially men and mothers-in-law, to build support and expand knowledge about the benefits of family planning – such as for averting maternal and child deaths and improving the health of the whole family (read an example from DRC).
  • Involve religious leaders (MSH has experience with Muslim and Christian associations) to support healthy timing and spacing of pregnancies and to create awareness within their communities about the risks for women and families of too early, too many, too close in timing, and too late pregnancies (watch video from Afghanistan).
  • Use a systems approach to improving access to essential medicines, including supply chain management, health financing, health information, and governance. New technologies need to have the most-in-need women in mind – including women who are poor, uneducated, and restricted by husbands’ authority – so the technologies need to be simple, easy to use and personal. Our experience with thousands of accredited, community-based drug dispensers demonstrates this is a promising way of expanding access to contraceptives.
  • Empower community health workers (CHWs) and midwives with information, training, evidence, leadership, costing, and political will. For example, CHWs offering injectables and in some cases implants demonstrate that monitored taskshifting is effective to bring contraceptives to women in hard-to-reach areas.

On World Contraception Day, we came together to reiterate the right of all people to accessible, affordable, acceptable and effective forms of contraception, including through a Twitter chat () co-hosted by Women Deliver and a dozen other organizations, including MSH (" href="http://storify.com/WomenDeliver/world-contraception-day-wcdchat">read Storify).

We can follow the example of Voyager: scientists expected and planned it to reach the farthest planets in our solar system. Voyager reached this and beyond, travelling 18.8 billion kilometers (11.7 billion miles) from Earth (more than 125 times the distance between Earth and the Sun). We can reach farther than offering access to contraception to 120 million women. We know how to do more for women and girls access to safe, effective, voluntary contraception: we can and we must reach beyond our goals.

More on MSH’s approach to family planning

Editor's note, September 27, 2013: This post was updated to clarify that in September, NASA confirmed that Voyager reached the border of the solar system; the actual date of interstellar space travel was much earlier. For more information about Voyager, visit the NASA website.