Africa: Eastern, Southern Africa Lead the World in Cutting Child Deaths - Unicef

Photo: Médecins Sans Frontierès
A group of mothers with their children line up to receive their drugs at a hospital pharmacy in Bossangoa, in the northwest region.

Eastern and southern Africa are reducing child mortality faster than any other regions in the world, the United Nations children's fund (Unicef) said on Friday.

More than 18,000 children die needlessly every day, largely from preventable causes such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria, according to Unicef. Most of these deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In the past seven years, eastern and southern Africa have been the best performing regions globally in fighting preventable child deaths, reducing under-five mortality at an annual rate of 5.3 per cent between 2005 and 2012, Unicef said in a report.

"We are seeing very encouraging results in the poorest nations in the world and particularly in eastern Africa," Unicef spokeswoman Sarah Crowe told a press conference this week ahead of the publication of the report, called 'Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed'.

"The most rapid progress has been, in the past five to 10 years, in this region."

Ethiopia has reduced its under-five mortality rate by 67 per cent, Tanzania by 68 per cent and Malawi by 71 per cent since 1990. This means these countries have already achieved the fourth Millennium Development Goal of reducing the under-five mortality rate by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.

Globally, child survival rates have increased dramatically in the last 20 years. Under-five deaths have fallen by 47 per cent from 12.6 million to 6.6 million between 1990 and 2012.

However, despite huge progress, the world is 13 years behind schedule on meeting the fourth Millennium Development Goal and 35 million more children whose lives could have been saved will die in the coming years, Unicef said.

Eastern and southern Africa has made strides in tackling child mortality thanks to a number of key steps.

"Growth monitoring of children, oral rehydration, breastfeeding and immunisation - those four pillars are the gold standard of child rearing," said Crowe. "What we are seeing in countries that have very fast results is that they are focusing on those areas."

BIGGEST CHILD KILLERS

Ethiopia is one of the trailblazers, despite its poverty.

"Going there and seeing the progress is quite remarkable," said Crowe. "To see that a country has come that far, that quickly, shows that so many other countries can do the same."

The majority of Ethiopian women give birth at home so the government has hired 38,000 health workers to bring services to remote areas.

Rural women are now easily able to get treatment for the biggest child killers - respiratory infections, diarrhoea, malaria and pneumonia.

"The government is quite clear that the right package of intervention needs to reach every village," said Luwei Pearson, chief of health at Unicef Ethiopia.

"Immunisation, treatment of pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria are available... in every village."

As a result, Ethiopia's child mortality rates have halved in less than 10 years. With more children surviving, birth rates have also fallen.

BABIES DYING AT HOME

Neonatal deaths - that occur in the first 28 days of life - are the hardest to tackle. These vulnerable newborns accounted for 44 per cent of under-five deaths in 2012, according to the Unicef report.

The solution, Pearson said, is to get more mothers to seek medical help when pregnant and when delivering their child, as well as improving their nutrition.

Their newborns also need to be checked by health workers, instead of being kept at home.

"In the vast majority of African villages, neonates are secluded in the household for a month," she said. "Often they are delivered at home. Sometimes they get sick at home. And sometimes they die at home."

Unicef is encouraging health workers to visit newborns at home in the first week of life.

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InFocus

Child Mortality on the Decline in Africa

A group of mothers with their children line up to receive their drugs at a hospital pharmacy in Bossangoa, in the northwest region.

While rapid progress has been seen in the last decade, East and Southern African nations have done particularly well to reduce child mortality by focusing on breastfeeding and ... Read more »