Developing strategies to end hunger

Great News: The Tide is Turning on Child Mortality


  Haitian photo for child mortality blog

It's simple: every young child, including this little boy in Haiti, deserves to live a full, healthy life.

When hunger advocates are asked what motivates us to keep working for policy change, year after year, the preventable deaths of millions of young children -- also year after year -- are at the top of the list for many.

That's why the significant progress on child mortality announced recently is so exciting. According to UNICEF's APR_Progress_Report_2012, nearly 12 million children younger than 5 died in 1990, but by 2011, the death toll had dropped to less than 7 million. That is still far too many, but it means that every day, about 14,000 children survive who would have died as recently as 1990. 

Even better news: countries at all income levels have made progress. In fact, 20 countries with high child mortality rates cut their death rates by more than half between 1990 and 2011, including four by more than two-thirds: Lao People's Democratic Republic, Timor-Leste, Liberia, and Bangladesh. Sub-Saharan Africa as a region achieved a decrease of 39 percent. In other words, of every five African children who would have died in 1990, two now survive.

Where do we go from here? It's still true that more than a third of deaths among young children are attributable to malnutrition -- underscoring the urgency of the Scaling Up Nutrition/1,000 Days movement to prevent malnutrition between pregnancy and age 2. It's also important to reach the next group, ages 2 to 5, with good nutrition, clean water, immunizations, and medical care. 

Another essential area of focus is safer pregnancy and childbirth. Of the nearly 7 million child deaths in 2011, about 40 percent were newborns in their first four weeks of life. The primary causes include prematurity, complications during childbirth, and infections. Thus, newborn deaths mirror broader development problems (e.g., ensuring that there are enough trained childbirth attendants in remote or poor areas), and wider social concerns (e.g., ensuring that girls delay marriage and motherhood until their bodies have matured and they can safely give birth).

Finally, preventing and treating deadly diseases remains a high priority, despite significant progress since 1990. Pneumonia is the cause of 18 percent of all deaths among children under 5 worldwide -- that's 1.3 million lives in 2011. Deaths from diarrhea have dropped by a third since the turn of the millennium, but still claimed 700,000 lives in 2011, while 500,000 children, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa, died of malaria.

Just since June 2012, more than half the world’s governments have signed up to renew their commitment to child survival through the new effort A Promise Renewed. According to UNICEF, the opportunity for further sharp reductions in preventable child deaths has never been greater.

History is on the side of today's babies and toddlers -- no matter where in the world they live.

  Michele Learner is associate editor for Bread for the World Institute.


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