Global infant mortality rates slashed

13 Sep, 2012 11:06 AM
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THE number of young children dying before they reach their fifth birthday has been slashed from 12 million a year to 7 million over the past two decades.

UNICEF's annual estimate of child mortality has found 14,000 fewer children under five now die each day than in 1990. Even so, almost 19,000 under fives are still lost daily, mostly from poverty-related illness that could be easily prevented.

Countries in Australia's region have achieved some of the biggest improvements.

In Laos the rate fell 72 per cent between 1990 and 2011, while East Timor's dropped 70 per cent. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund says 20 high-mortality countries have reduced their rates by more than half since 1990.

The chief executive of UNICEF in Australia, Norman Gillespie, said the latest figures showed how foreign aid had helped bring stability in the Asia Pacific region.

“If you are getting these types of results, then clearly aid spending is worthwhile in anybody's book,” Dr Gillespie said. “There are so many advantages not just to local people and individual countries but for the whole region.”

UNICEF estimates the worldwide under-five mortality rate had fallen from 87 per 1000 live births in 1990 to 51 last year. Expanded efforts to combat infectious diseases had underpinned this improvement, it said. Measles deaths declined from about 500,000 in 2000 to 100,000 last year.

Technological advances which had reduced the cost of some immunisations and treatments had helped drive down the infant mortality rates, Dr Gillespie said. The long-term strategy to improve education for girls was also paying dividends.

“You are getting really big step ups in eliminating some diseases now,” he said.

Pneumonia is the world's leading child killer. It causes about a fifth of all under-five deaths worldwide – a loss of about 1.3 million lives. Diarrhoea's toll has dropped a third over the past decade, from 1.2 million to 700,000. UNICEF estimates a decade of malaria prevention has saved the lives of 1 million children.

Children are most vulnerable in their first month of life – about 40 per cent of deaths among children under five occur in that period. In 2011 this amounted to 3 million deaths worldwide.

About half of the world's under-five deaths last year occurred in just five countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and China. Despite its rapid economic growth and reputation as an emerging economic power, India had the highest number of under-five deaths in 2011 – nearly 1.7 million.

Africa's infant mortality rate has fallen from 163 per 1000 live births to 100 since 1990 but the 10 countries with the highest rates are all on that continent. Dr Gillespie said most countries with very high rates were plagued by civil conflict.

“War and conflict is bad on all sorts of fronts but it's really bad for children,” he said.

“It's causing high mortality rates for under-fives and that's not normally something people think about when they think of conflict."

Six African countries – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Somalia, Mali, Cameroon and Burkina Faso – experienced a rise in their under-five deaths by 10,000 or more for 2011, compared with 1990.

The world's lowest rates are in Singapore, the Nordic and some European countries, and Japan.

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