Some good news! This week, UNICEF and the World Health Organisation has released a report this past week showing that the number of boys and girls under 5 years of age who die annually has dropped dramatically from 12 million a year in 1990 to 7.6 million a year in 2010.
According to the WHO media release, this means that 12 000 fewer children under the age of 5 are dying a day compared to 1990. Expressed as a proportion of live births, the global under-five mortality rate dropped from 88 deaths per 1,000 to 57.
Especially dramatic decreases were recorded in those areas of the world with the highest number of child deaths. For example, for the period 1990-2000, the rate at which infant mortality was declining in sub-Saharan Africa was 1.2% a year, whereas during 2000-2010 the rate of decline had doubled to 2.4%. The greatest absolute reductions in overall under-five mortality rates were recorded in Malawi, Liberia, Timor-Leste, Sierra-Leone and Nigeria.
The reasons for this reduction are various:
"Reductions in child mortality are linked to many factors, particularly increased access to health care services around the newborn period. As well as prevention and treatment of childhood illnesses, and improved nutrition, immunization coverage, and water and sanitation," said Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director General. "This is proof that investing in children's health is money well spent, and a sign that we need to accelerate that investment through the coming years."
However, WHO and UNICEF were also keen to stress that there is still a long way to go. The two organisations pointed out that less progress had been made for newborns and infants. Over 70% of those who die under the age of five will do so before they are one year old. Also, under-five deaths are increasingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. While in 1990 69% of the world’s under-five deaths occurred in these two regions, by 2010 this proportion had increased to 82 per cent. Anthony Lake, the UNICEF Executive Director, stated that:
“The news that the rate of child mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa is declining twice as fast as it was a decade ago shows that we can make progress even in the poorest places, but we cannot for a moment forget the chilling fact of around 21,000 children dying every day from preventable causes...”
Still, while not perfect (and it is unlikely that the WHO and UNICEF would say that everything is fine no matter how low the numbers) these numbers are supremely encouraging. Although the Millennium Development Goal 4 is a two-thirds reduction in the rate 1990 rate by 2015, and it is unlikely that this will be reached, things are certainly improving. I wonder if this trend continues whether the birth rate in the poorest areas on Earth will start to decrease as a greater proportion of babies are surviving through their earliest years.