Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Good News About Child Mortality

I learned in my years as both an elected official and as an appointed official that one of the biggest mistakes that advocates make is to ignore the good news and focus on the problems that remain unsolved. I understand the concern that sometimes good news can remove the urgency for action, but I also think that harping solely about bad news has its own set of problems. Most importantly, the audience quickly comes to the conclusion that the problems are hopeless so why bother?

For that reason, I would like to highlight some great news just announced by UNICEF--child mortality has dropped in absolute terms. The New York Times has the details:

For the first time since record keeping began in 1960, the number of deaths of young children around the world has fallen below 10 million a year, according to figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund being released today.

This public health triumph has arisen, Unicef officials said, partly from campaigns against measles, malaria and bottle-feeding, and partly from improvements in the economies of most of the world outside Africa.

The estimated drop, to 9.7 million deaths of children under 5, “is a historic moment,” said Ann M. Veneman, Unicef’s executive director, noting that it shows progress toward the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of cutting the rate of infant mortality in 1990 by two-thirds by 2015. “But there is no room for complacency. Most of these deaths are preventable, and the solutions are tried and tested.”

Interestingly, Unicef officials said, the new estimate comes from household surveys done in 2005 or earlier, so they barely reflect the huge influx of money that has poured into third world health in the last few years from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the Gates Foundation; and the Bush administration’s twin programs to fight AIDS and malaria. For that reason, the next five-year survey should show even greater improvement, they said.

“We feel we’re at a tipping point now,” said Dr. Peter Salama, Unicef’s chief medical officer. “In a few years’ time, it will all translate into a very exciting drop.”

The most important advances, Unicef said, included these:

¶Measles deaths have dropped 60 percent since 1999, thanks to vaccination drives.
¶More women are breast-feeding rather than mixing formula or cereal with dirty water.
¶More babies are sleeping under mosquito nets.
¶More are getting Vitamin A drops.
In 1960, about 20 million children died annually, but the drop since then has been steeper than 50 percent because the world population has grown. If babies were still dying at 1960 rates, 25 million would die this year.

Okay, lest you get complacent, more remains to be done:

There are still wide disparities. The highest rates of child mortality are found in West and Central Africa, where more than 150 of every 1,000 children born will die before age 5. In the wealthy countries of North America, Western Europe and Japan, the average is about six.

The most rapid progress has been made in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Central and Eastern Europe, and in East Asia and the Pacific.

Despite the improvement, two sets of countries have worsened, Unicef said: those in southern Africa that have been hit hardest by AIDS, and those that have been at war recently, like Congo and Sierra Leone.

Read it all here.

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