Child mortality

Posted: 24 September 2007

Some 10 million children die each year in the developing world, the vast majority from causes preventable through a combination of good care, nutrition, and medical treatment. The World Health Organization has warned its members that they are losing the battle against child mortality and may fail to meet a target to reduce it by two-thirds by 2015.

From the mid-1950s to 2005, global childhood deaths dropped from 210 per 1,000 live births to 76. But in low-income countries, one child in 11 dies before its fifth birthday, compared with 1 in 143 in high-income countries.

Prevalence of underweight children
Prevalence of underweight children
Child deaths have dropped rapidly in the past 35 years, but progress everywhere slowed in the 1990s, and a few countries have experienced increases in the same period. Nevertheless, UNICEF reported in September 2007 that the number of child deaths has fallen to 9.7 million annually, the lowest number ever reported by the UN Children's Fund. In 1990, this figure was almost 13 million.

The vast majority of child deaths are still seen in the developing world, especially in western and central African countries. In southern Africa the HIV/AIDS epidemic has also undermined much of the progress in child health. However, a number of countries with large rural and extremely poor populations have made significant progress. For example, measles deaths have fallen by 75 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa since 1999. Morocco, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic have each cut their under-5 mortality rates by more than one-third.

UNICEF attributes the smaller share of child deaths worldwide to the adoption of basic health interventions, such as early and exclusive breastfeeding, measles immunization, Vitamin A supplementation, and the use of insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria.

Though children today have a better chance of surviving through childhood than their predecessors, 5.4 million more children per year must be saved in order to achieve the Millennium Development Goal of cutting child mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.

Link to poverty

Child mortality is closely linked to poverty. In 2005 the average under-five mortality rate was 153 deaths per 1,000 live births in least developed countries, 83 in the developing countries as a whole, and 6 in the high-income countries.

  • A 2001 study published by Save the Children, State of the World's Newborns, of newborn babies in 163 countries reveals that 4 million newborn babies die each year, 98 per cent in developing countries. Most of them die as a result of poorly managed pregnancies and deliveries. Millions more women and babies suffer debilitating and life-long consequences of ill-health.

  • In the West African country of Mali, 55 newborn babies out of 1,000 die, compared with only five in 1,000 in the United States.

  • A report in Population Reports magazine on 120 Demographic and Health Surveys, in September 2003, found that only 30 out of 56 countries achieved the goals for infant survival set at the 1990 World Summit for Children (WSC). An average of 11 million children under the age of 5 died each year in developing countries during the 1990s. The failure to meet the WSC goals was attributed to reduced commitment to childhood immunization programmes, armed conflict and HIV/AIDS.

  • Infant and child survival rates improved by nearly 30 per cent in surveyed developing countries as a whole since 1990. But infant and child mortality increased in some sub-Saharan countries, particularly in those hardest hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Few surveyed countries have met the goal set by WHO and UNICEF of immunizing at least 80 per cent of children against the common childhood diseases by 2000.