Good news from UNICEF: more children than ever before are surviving beyond their fifth birthdays.
A new report (5.2 MB PDF) available on UNICEF’s website estimates that the global number of deaths among children under age five has fallen from around 12 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011. What’s more, UNICEF finds steady reductions in child deaths in all regions of the world over the past two decades.
“This is tremendously encouraging news, but it’s not unexpected,” said PATH’s Jacqueline Sherris, our vice president for global programs. “We know that with the commitment of many partners—governments, donors, scientists, health workers, families, organizations like PATH and our collaborators—we can give children the chance to survive and thrive.”
“It takes hard work at every level,” she continued. “And in part, it takes a refusal to be satisfied with conditions as they are and optimism that they can be better.”
What’s making the difference?
UNICEF says the progress is the result of “a broad confluence of gains” in everything from medical technology to economic improvements in developing countries. But the agency does find evidence that suggests many of the major declines in the death rate were related to expanded efforts against infectious diseases, which account for almost two-thirds of deaths among children under five. Measles deaths have dropped from an estimated 500,000 in 2000 to 100,000 in 2011, for example. And while polio has proven notoriously hard to eliminate, levels are at historic lows.
UNICEF cites progress among other leading causes of child mortality as well:
- The death toll from diarrhea, which accounts for 11 percent of deaths among young children, has dropped by a third in the last decade, from 1.2 million deaths in 2000 to 700,000 in 2011.
- Malaria causes about 7 percent of under-five deaths. But malaria prevention efforts over the last ten years have saved the lives of an estimated one million children.
“Only” 6.9 million deaths
That last bullet point illustrates the good news–bad news conundrum of reports like this one. The good news is more children have been saved from malaria. The bad news is about a half million still die every year from the disease, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
The good news is more children are surviving to age five. The bad news is nearly 7 million still die before they can celebrate that birthday.
Of course, 7 million deaths are too many. And that 80 percent of the deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia points to serious inequities that persist in global health and development. But the steep reduction over the last two decades in the number of children dying is still, as our vice president says, tremendously encouraging. It shows we can improve health worldwide. And it feeds the optimism we all need to renew our commitment to child survival.