Child mortality down, but still too many millions of poor children dying

Many are crediting the setting of the Millennium Development Goals, which nearly 15 years ago established reducing global child mortality as one of the eight primary goals of the international community. But as data from the World Bank illustrates, declining child mortality has been the trend for a long time - well before the MDGs were established.

That’s the gist of a new report from UNICEF, which celebrates the significant reductions made over the years in reducing the number of children dying mostly in poor countries and mostly from easily preventable causes like hunger, lack of clean water and lack of access to basic health care.

The numbers are, like most global statistics, large and abstract but compelling nevertheless: In 1990, something like 12 million kids were dying before they reached five years old. Today, despite population growth, the estimate is closer to 6 million child deaths under age five.

That’s a major reduction, but it still means 18,000 young children are dying from mostly preventable causes every day.  As UNICEF’s director in the organization’s announcement of the report says:

“Yes, we should celebrate the progress,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “But how can we celebrate when there is so much more to do before we reach the goal?  And we can speed up the progress – we know how, but we need to act with a renewed sense of urgency.”

Many are crediting the setting of the Millennium Development Goals, which nearly 15 years ago established reducing global child mortality as one of the eight primary goals of the international community.  But as this graphic from the World Bank illustrates, declining child mortality has been the trend for a long time – well before the MDGs were established.

Under 5 Mortality
World Bank

So why are child deaths on a decline, and what should be done to maintain this trend? Much of the overall progress has been in China, almost certainly due to the health improvements that often accompany economic gains. Yet China, India, Nigeria, Pakistan and DR Congo remain the countries with the highest numbers of premature child deaths.

Many experts contend what’s needed now is less a ranking of mortality country-by-country and more focus on what’s happening to specific populations by various causes. This is due to the fact that many of the poorest people live in middle-income countries and death comes sometimes from political or social drivers as much as from infectious disease.

Martin Drewry, director of London-based Health Poverty Action, said a deeper look reveals to what extent discrimination and ethnic persecution correlates with child death rates. Drewry wants more attention to this:

“The report makes a very brief reference to disparities in mortality within countries, but it is vital that this disparity becomes a driver for deciding development priorities and resource allocations,” he said. Here’s a report from his organization making the case for ‘disaggregating’ the data.

“People from ethnic and cultural minorities frequently have poorer health outcomes than the national average,” contended Drewry. “Health Poverty Action is calling for health data to be broken down by ethnicity. The disparities between different groups within countries needs to be made visible and this information used to drive strategy.”

Other news stories or blog posts on the UNICEF report:

CBS Child deaths down, but many still dying

VOA Child mortality reduced by half

ONE How many children survived to see their 5th birthday?

UN Dispatch Child mortality way down

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.