Lowering child mortality rates

UNICEF wants to drop the amount of child deaths caused by hunger across the world.

An internally displaced woman from Southern Somalia gives water to her daughter at a distribution centre. Picture: AFP

NAIROBI - In 1990, an estimated 12 million children around the world died under age five; by 2011, that figure had dropped to 6.9 million. The message, from a new report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), is that with greater commitment to child survival from governments and their partners, these figures can go lower still.

"These new data are cause to celebrate," UNICEF deputy executive director Geeta Rao Gupta said at a press conference launching the 2012 Progress Report on Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed.

"But this is unfinished business, and it is not just about numbers. Behind every statistic is an unseen child, and a grieving mother and father."

The vast majority of child deaths are preventable.

Almost two-thirds of under-five deaths in 2011 were caused by infectious illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria, meningitis, tetanus, HIV and measles; by contrast, in countries with very low under-five mortality rates, there were almost no deaths from infectious diseases.

More than one-third of under-five deaths could be attributed to under nutrition, and almost 40 percent occurred within the first month of life, often due to preterm or delivery complications.

According to the report, nine low-income countries - Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Nepal, Niger and Rwanda - have lowered their under-five mortality rate by 60 percent or more over the last two decades.

These countries used simple, tried and tested methods to improve child survival: widespread immunisation campaigns for diseases like measles and polio; insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria; interventions ranging from folic acid supplements to clean delivery practices to improve newborn survival; and exclusive breastfeeding to address under nutrition.

The global drop in under-five mortality works out to a decline of about 3 percent per year, but if the world is to meet the Millennium Development Goals on child mortality and maternal health, child deaths need to fall by 14 percent per year, according to the World Health Organisation.