Fewer babies dying worldwide

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In a bit of welcome news on infant mortality rates worldwide, researchers at University of Washington are reporting a lower death rate for children under five than previous UNICEF estimates had calculated.

According to a new assessment of data, including birth and death records, as well as census and survey results, the authors found that in 2008, 820,000 fewer youngsters died than had been estimated.

The improved numbers not only reflect a more accurate accounting of infant deaths, but a real improvement in factors that can help babies survive past their fifth birthday. Since 1970, programs that provide vaccines, vitamins, and treatments for infectious diseases such as malaria and AIDS have succeeded in dropping mortality rates by 60%; since 1990, the number of children in that age group dying declined from 11.9 million to 7.7 million. In 13 regions worldwide, and particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, the scientists say, the drop in mortality is particularly steep, with many countries enjoying a 1% to 3% improvement each year between 2000 and 2010.

While the figures certainly point to a positive trend in reversing infant mortality, the number of youngsters who never make it past childhood is still staggering. The Millennium Development Goal 4 of the United Nations targets a two-thirds reduction infant mortality by 2015. That means that developing countries need to push their infant mortality rates down by an average of 4.4% each year; even with the improved numbers, that average still stands at 2.1%.

In order to do reach the MDG4 in time, the scientists say, it’s important to understand where mortality rates are dropping the fastest, and identify the programs, interventions and even national level policies that are the most effective. These can then be transferred to other regions to see if they are as effective in lowering death rates. So far, only 54 of the countries studied are on track toward meeting the MGD4 goal.

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