A little good news: fewer children are dying worldwide

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In these dismal days when images of tortured children gassed to death are distressing all hearts, there is a small piece of good news. The number of infants and children worldwide who die before reaching their fifth birthday has almost halved in recent decades. However, about 45 percent die of under nutrition so there is still a long way to go.

Under-five mortality dropped from 12 million in 1990 to 6.6 million or 18,000 a day in 2012, UNICEF, the global children’s agency, the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Bank and the UN, jointly reported today. The figures are broad estimates because it is difficult to collect reliable statistics on under-five deaths since they occur in poor regions.

Just five countries account for about half the under-five deaths: China, Congo, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. “What we need is a greater sense of urgency,” said Anthony Lake, the head of UNICEF. “Most of these deaths can be prevented, using simple steps that many countries have already put in place… Millions of lives have been saved… and we can do still better.”

Although the situation has improved considerably in Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the world’s poorest regions, the rate of under-five deaths is still at a high 98 per 1000 live births. That means a child is at least 16 times more likely to die than one born in richer countries.

The leading causes of death include pneumonia, prematurity, birth asphyxia, diarrhea and malaria. WHO chief Margaret Chan pointed out that nearly half of all newborn deaths occur within the first day: “Care for mother and baby in the first 24 hours of any child’s life is critical for the health and wellbeing of both.”

Most of those lives can be saved by better access to elementary health care services, including exclusive breast feeding, skin-to-skin contact between mothers and the new- born, improved care during and after childbirth and affordable antibiotics. These are surmountable obstacles, with some political will and reasonable funding, .

Various international agencies, non-governmental organizations and other partners have several extensive programs to reduce under-five deaths, and there is still hope that they will be cut by two-thirds by 2015 or soon after. The solutions are known and affordable, although being successful is arduous because of poverty and lack of health services where the children’s families live.

With such unprecedented and achievable gains within range, we can only hope that powerful and rich countries put aside geopolitics and suspicion to move all children to healthier lives of better opportunities.

Preventing the use of chemical weapons in Syria and elsewhere is a necessary start because inflicting such horrifying deaths to gratify military ambition is too inexcusable a danger to place upon children, who already face so many hurdles to just staying alive and growing up.

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Author: BRIJ KHINDARIA, Foreign Affairs Columnist