WASHINGTON — When former Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., left office in 2006, he searched for a cause to champion that he said “would make the biggest impact on changing the course of humanity.”
He chose global infant mortality, and Thursday, in his first appearance back on Capitol Hill, he urged Congress to pass a bill that would include foreign aid to reduce the 27,000 infant deaths worldwide each day from easily treatable maladies such as pneumonia and diarrhea.
“I know none of us gathered here today believes nearly 10 million children under the age of five dying every year is an acceptable reality,” said Dr. Frist, a physician who has taken many medical missions around the world.
Dr. Frist also acknowledged many counties in Tennessee, including Hamilton County, have high infant mortality rates, which a non-profit organization he sponsors, Save the Children, is combating through various programs.
Hamilton County’s infant mortality rate for blacks in 2006 was 23.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, well above the state average of 16.8.
“It’s not just a global issue, it’s also a domestic issue,” said Dr. Frist, chairman of Save the Children’s Survive to 5 campaign. “You have to rely on the basics — community health workers, prenatal care, clean water. All of that is very inexpensive in this country, but we have 10 percent of people who should be getting vaccines who are not vaccinated today.”
Dr. Frist has been rumored to be interested in a Tennessee gubernatorial run in 2010, but he declined to answer questions about that, saying he was in Washington solely to focus on the aid bill.
The Global Child Survival Act would authorize up to $5.9 billion over five years to expand child and maternal health programs, both domestically and abroad. The money would be used to provide immunizations, vitamin supplements, oral rehydration therapies and other health measures that in many cases cost just pennies per child, supporters said.
The bill has been introduced in the House by Reps. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., and Christopher Shays, R-Conn. In the Senate, it was introduced by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore.
“This is not complicated. This is not expensive,” Sen. Dodd said. “Providing these resources can save millions of children.”
Dr. Frist said the foreign aid can help from a national security standpoint, as well.
“If you reach out and life up through these simple tools we have today, despair disappears and hope appears,” he said. “That becomes a currency for peace.”
Still, he acknowledged that in an election year in which fiscal restraint is a key issue on Capitol Hill, the bill will be difficult to pass.
“Democrats and Republicans are in an environment where constituents are looking at fiscal discipline, so sometimes it’s easier not to (co-sponsor) a bill,” Dr. Frist said. “It’s incumbent on us to say that this is a wise investment, it has huge benefits and it can change the course of humanity.”