Child Mortality Rates Around the World Dropped Big-Time in the Last 15 Years

UNICEF reports a 53 percent decrease in child deaths, but newborns still face the biggest risk.

(Photo: Jenny Vaughan/Getty Images)

Sep 9, 2015· 1 MIN READ
David McNair is an award-winning reporter and editor based in Charlottesville, Va. He runs the hyper-local news site The DTM and his fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review.

First, the good news: Global child mortality rates are less than half what they were in 1990, dropping from 12.7 million under-five deaths per year to 5.9 million in 2015, according to a report released Wednesday by UNICEF. The bad news is that 16,000 children under five are still dying each day. While that 53 percent decrease is nothing to scoff at, it falls short of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of a two-thirds global reduction in child mortality by now.

“We have to acknowledge tremendous global progress, especially since 2000, when many countries have tripled the rate of reduction of under-five mortality,” UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta said in a statement. Increased global efforts to provide proper nutrition to young mothers and newborns, prenatal care, and improved intervention for infectious diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and HIV all contributed to healthier children. “But the far too large number of children still dying from preventable causes before their fifth birthday—and indeed within their first month of life—should impel us to redouble our efforts to do what we know needs to be done. We cannot continue to fail them.”

The biggest challenge involves caring for newborns, according to the report. Forty-five percent of all child deaths happen in the first month of life, with 1 million deaths occurring on the day of birth and 2 million within the first week of life.

The report says that the majority of these deaths are easily preventable, as nearly half are caused by basic malnutrition. Complications during labor and delivery, diarrhea, sepsis, and malaria are all easily treatable as well.

Where a child lives matters too. One-third of the world’s countries—62, to be exact—have met the MDG’s two-thirds reduction goal, while 74 have cut child mortality rates in half. But a number of places are far behind.

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Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, has the highest child mortality rate, with one child in every 12 dying before the fifth birthday; that’s about 12 times higher than the average of most developed countries. What’s more, the under-five population in the region is expected to increase by nearly 30 percent by 2030. Combine that with the persistent poverty of the region, and it’s clear it will be ground zero for tackling the problem of child mortality.

“Rapid improvements since 2000 have saved the lives of millions of children,” acknowledged U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo. “But this progress will need to continue and even accelerate further, especially in high-mortality countries of sub-Saharan Africa.”