The number of children who died last year fell to 5.9 million, a record low, according to a UNICEF report released today. While the speed at which rates are dropping has increased, it is not enough to achieve an established goal of lowering the number of deaths to children under 5 by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015.
The good news is that fewer children are dying.
Advocates want to see greater improvements, and a bill in the U.S. Congress aims to bring the number of preventable child deaths to zero in the next 20 years.
“We now have the chance to end these needless deaths in our lifetime,” said Joanne Carter, executive director of advocacy group RESULTS, in a media call. “The science shows we have the tools. That means in 2035 a child born in the poorest setting could have the same chance of reaching her fifth birthday as a child born in the richest.”
The legislation presents an opportunity for the U.S. to help end preventable child deaths – and it has bipartisan support. Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Chris Coons, D-Del., are the lead sponsors for The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 (S.1911), or Reach Act. It focuses on improving accountability of United States Agency for International Development, reaching the most vulnerable, deploying proven solutions and codifies a child and maternal survival coordinator.
Collins and Coons introduced the bill at the end of July – just before Congress took its summer break. Advocates are optimistic that the bill will improve U.S. global health investments. And they think that the bipartisan bill stands a chance of being passed by a Congress that does not often cooperate.
“Our bipartisan bill would build on the remarkable progress already made by UNICEF and other international partners by reforming and scaling up interventions to have a larger short- and long-term impact,” said Coons, in a statement. “The United States has been an essential leader in our progress to end maternal and child mortality so far, and we must continue to work together with our international partners to not just bring these numbers down, but to end preventable child deaths for good.”
According to the U.N. children’s agency, child mortality rates fell by more than half between 1990 and 2015. It is well short of the goal to reduce deaths by two-thirds during the same period of time, but it is still a heck of an accomplishment. Some 50 million fewer children died since 2000 with the improvements. The report opens the possibility of 38 million more lives that saved by 2030.
“Far too large number of children still dying from preventable causes before their fifth birthday – and indeed within their first month of life – should impel us to redouble our efforts to do what we know needs to be done,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta, to the media. “We cannot continue to fail them.”
There is an expectation that more co-sponsors will soon join the bill, said John Paul Fawcett, legislative director for RESULTS, in an interview with Humanosphere. The hope is to build momentum as the world pays attention to the United Nations and the adoption of the next global development goals. More than 25 groups are working to support the Reach act, including World Vision, CARE and Save the Children. All say the bill builds on the U.S.-led Child Survival Call to Action (2012) that set out the target of ending preventable child deaths by 2035.
“The science and evidence show us we can end preventable maternal and child deaths. That is clear,” Fawcett said. “What is not clear is if we are going to make the choices to get there. One of those choices is giving USAID the tools to get that done and holding ourselves to account.”
— Scott T. Weathers (@sctwea) August 24, 2015
The global child mortality rate fell by an average of 3.9 percent between 2000 and 2015. That is twice as fast as it did in the prior decade. Major achievements were made in sub-Saharan African countries that helped lead the way on preventing deaths. Niger, Rwanda, Tanzania and Mozambique are a part of a cohort of 10 African countries that achieved the goal of two-thirds reduction, despite their low-income-country status. It goes to show that major gains are possible everywhere if the proper steps are taken.
The world is doing better at keeping kids alive after infancy, but it is that first 1,000 days that are critical and when most deaths occur. Roughly 45 percent of all child deaths occur in the first four weeks of life – prematurity and pneumonia are the leading causes.
As is echoed throughout comments on the bill and the new report, the ways to prevent infant deaths are known. Advocates see the Reach Act as a great opportunity to put those known solutions into action and for the U.S. to assert the leadership role it claims to stake out on ending preventable maternal and child deaths.
“Substantively, there is a lot members of Congress can agree on in the Reach Act,” said Fawcett. “It is fundamentally about saving lives of women and children.”