NEW YORK (AlertNet) - More children are living to see their fifth birthday than ever before, thanks to rapid healthcare advances in the last two decades, but largely preventable diseases still claim the lives of nearly 7 million under-fives annually, says a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
The success in combating child mortality around the world has been dramatic, with under-five deaths plunging 41 percent from around 12 million in 1990 to an estimated 6.9 million in 2011, according to the report.
“The story of child survival over the last two decades is one of significant progress but unfinished business as well,” UNICEF Deputy Director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a conference call on Wednesday.
Progress has been documented across the globe, regardless of region or economic status. Ten high-income countries, including Oman and Portugal, 19 middle-income nations, such as Brazil and Turkey, and nine low-income nations, including Bangladesh and Rwanda, have reduced their under-five mortality rates by 60 percent or more since 1990.
This has been mainly due to successful campaigns against the main early childhood killer diseases, such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria. And even though vaccines are still relatively expensive in some areas, routine immunisations have increased around the world, drastically reducing deaths from diseases like measles, which accounted for only 1 percent of under-five deaths globally in 2010.
Polio has fallen to historically low levels, and advances in prevention and treatment have substantially reduced HIV-related deaths among children to about 2 percent in 2010, the report said.
The “unfinished business” concerns the some 19,000 children who still die daily from these and other infectious diseases, which are often preventable with simple and affordable interventions, said Gupta.
“With adequate nutrition, vaccines and basic medical and maternal care, most of them could be saved,” she said.
Young children’s lives are most at risk in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which together represented more than 80 percent of all under-five deaths in 2011, according to UNICEF.
Infectious diseases kill almost two-thirds of children under the age of five, said Tessa Wardlaw, UNICEF chief of monitoring and statistics. Four in 10 of these deaths occur during the first month of life.
The leading killers of children under five are pneumonia, at 18 percent, and diarrhoea, at 11 percent. Just four countries account for more than half of those deaths: Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
A new international campaign led by UNICEF, A Promise Renewed, targets areas where early childhood mortality is highest.
In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the agency is working with manufacturers to negotiate cheaper prices for vaccines in return for volume purchased, said Mickey Chopra, UNICEF chief of health.
“Ultimately, the goal is that a full course of vaccines, including new ones for hepatitis and diarrhoea, should be less than $20 per child, which would be a 10-fold decrease in price from when (these vaccines) were introduced in the North (developed world),” he said.
UNICEF is also focusing on outreach to communities and women’s groups to reduce infant deaths from preventable diseases, a technique it has found to produce the most progress. “There is a strong correlation between the education of a mother and the survival of her child,” Chopra said.
“We can end preventable child deaths as we know them today,” said UNICEF deputy chief Gupta. “And ‘A Promise Renewed’ is a programme that is going to make it happen.”