Health experts say that family planning – choosing when and how many children to have – is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent illness and save lives in the world’s poor countries.

Every dollar spent on family planning, they say, saves four dollars that would otherwise have to spent on treating the complications that come from unintended pregnancies.

It is also a solution to runaway population growth in the world’s poor countries, growth that puts stresses on the abilities of families to feed themselves.

A conference this week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, convened by the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition ended with an agreement from pharmaceuticals company Merck to provide more affordable modern contraception to the developing world by reducing the cost of a contraceptive implant known as Implanon.

It is hoped this will contribute to efforts to achieve Millennium Development Goal number five: to reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters and achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015.

The initiative has strong backing from Western donor nations.

"The US Government strongly supports the work of the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition," said Hillary Clinton. "We are proud to be a part of this global partnership dedicated to making essential reproductive health products available in low- and middle-income countries."

Andrew Mitchell, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development, said: "Access to contraception is vital to the health of women and children in the developing world.”

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