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Child deaths fall: “Good, but…”

Last night saw the UN release some really encouraging figures on the progress we are making across the world to reduce the number of children that die each year.

So much has been done by so many actors across the world that the number of deaths has fallen by over five million since 1990. And in the last year alone the number fell by 700, 000 to below seven million.

All this is, of course, immensely good news to those hoping to eradicate all preventable child deaths as it demonstrates that what has been done so far has produced improvements.

But, (and you just knew there was a ‘but’ coming, didn’t you?) the pace of improvement is still not enough to meet the target level globally agreed at the turn of the millennium.

Even then, this target would still see four million children under five year dying annually, the majority of them from entirely preventable causes. Hence the many “Good, but…” reactions to the news.

So what lies behind this seemingly stock reaction to news?

Well, fundamentally, it’s the difference between the collective and the individual. We can all be pleased that the overall number of children dying before their fifth birthday is falling.

But try explaining this good news to a mother whose child is one of those to have died from a preventable or curable ailment. Or to a father who lost both his wife and their new child needlessly in childbirth.

Their story and personal loss are not changed by the survival of others. But what we can take from the collective improvement is that we are not powerless.

The fact that child deaths have almost halved in a generation is the result of our collective efforts. Of decisions taken to increase access to services preventing child deaths as well as increasing and improving aid in support of this.

A new evaluation of how much the aid from the EC for health contributes to this was published this week (I’ll be blogging about this later). All this underscores that we can now make a decision to eradicate the other half of preventable deaths by escalating these efforts.

What we need to do next to achieve this:

• Redouble our efforts towards MDG 4 and accelerate provision of universal health coverage.

• Invest in family planning, maternal and newborn care.

• Address rising food prices, set targets to reduce chronic malnutrition and implement the programmes that achieve this.

• Provide equitable health systems and innovative community care that reaches all families, particularly the poorest people living in the poorest countries of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia.

• Train, recruit and retain millions more frontline health workers.

All of these will be challenging to accomplish. But accomplish them we can – and then we can tell those who have lost a child to a preventable cause that we have reacted to their loss, and prevented similar future losses.

Then there will be no need for the “Good, but…” statements.

 

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