Saving More Lives: Global Child Mortality Rates Drop

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Since 1990, about 90 million young lives have been saved by interventions that improve health and reduce the risk of the most common causes of death among children.

In a report released by UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank Group and the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs/Population Division, researchers say the improvements are encouraging  but there are still challenges in reaching the group’s Millennium Development Goal of lowering mortality among children under five by two-thirds by 2015. If current trends continue, that target won’t be reached.

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In 2012, about 6.6 million children, or 18,000 children per day, died before their fifth birthday. While still high, that rate is significantly lower than the 12 million children under five who died worldwide in 1990. Pneumonia, premature birth, birth asphyxia, diarrhea and malaria were responsible for claiming most of these young lives. About 45% of these deaths were also related to malnutrition.

The fact that the mortality rates are declining is encouraging; on average, deaths dropped by about 1.2% each year between 1990 to 1995 to 3.9% between 2005 and 2012. Several low-income countries have already reduced child mortality rates by two-thirds — these include Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi and Nepal. Even sub-Saharan Africa, which faces significant economic, political and social barriers to providing basic health services, including vaccinations and proper post-natal care, as well as feeding its populations, showed improvements. While 98 infants out of every 1000 born in the region don’t make it to their fifth birthday, the area has demonstrated the most gains in reducing child mortality rates over the last couple of decades. Despite a lack of resources and natural emergencies such as droughts, floods and epidemics that make it difficult to maintain good public health, changing social and public health policies and the reallocation of funds to address child mortality have saved more lives.

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To address challenges in reaching the Millennium Development Goal, UNICEF, along with the U.S., Ethiopia and India launched a global effort to prevent children from dying of preventable causes; 176 countries have pledged to follow these nations’ lead in devoting more resources to reaching the 2015 goal.

Those efforts, as well as strategies used in other parts of the world where mortality rates have come down, should serve as a starting point for finding additional strategies for lowering child death rates, say the report’s authors. Some of the interventions with the most impressive benefits included stronger immunization programs, more widespread education about breastfeeding, vitamin A distribution, mass distribution of treated bed nets to prevent malaria, better management of malnutrition more access to clean water and treatments for diarrheal diseases. In coming years, improving young children’s education of basic health and hygiene measures, such as the importance of washing their hands and  and the implementation of proper sanitation facilities could help to drive rates down further.