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How Can Sub-Saharan Africa Reduce Child Mortality?

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NAZIA PARVEZ
CREDIT: AP PHOTO/NAZIA PARVEZ

Child mortality rates throughout the Motherland have plummeted since the turn of the century, falling below the 6 million mark for the first time since the World Health Organization (WHO) started collecting data, a new report shows.

However, global health officials say there’s more to be done to meet long-term reduction goals in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially as 16,000 children under the age of five die prematurely daily. Nearly 50 percent of under-five deaths take place within the first month of life. Causes often include prematurity, pneumonia, diarrhea, sepsis, and malaria, all of which are preventable.

“We know how to prevent unnecessary newborn mortality. Quality care around the time of childbirth including simple affordable steps like ensuring early skin-to-skin contact, exclusive breastfeeding and extra care for small and sick babies can save thousands of lives every year,” Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director, told East African Business Week.

“‘The Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, to be launched at the UN General Assembly this month, will also be a major catalyst for giving all newborns the best chance at a healthy start in life,” she added.

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In June, nearly 2,500 organizations and global health leaders converged on Geneva, Switzerland to update the Global Strategy for Women’s Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. Reports from WHO say that most participants agreed that the strategy proved effective in supporting women, children, and those living in underdeveloped areas. Improving the strategy, last drafted in 2000, would require a protection of the recent gains made in fragile countries, particularly regions affected by Ebola. The updated document will most likely expand upon those ideas.

“Rapid improvements since 2000 have saved the lives of millions of children,” United Nations Undersecretary General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo said in a statement. “However, this progress will need to continue and even accelerate further, especially in high-mortality countries of sub-Saharan Africa, if we are to reach the proposed child survival target of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.”

Though newborn deaths have declined in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990s, children in the region are still 15 times more likely to die under the age of five, especially if they live in rural areas, poor households, or are born to a mother denied basic education. Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria account for a significant number of under-five child deaths. In some cases, war and sectarian violence often exacerbates the situation because families go long periods without food and clean water. Recurrent civil conflict in Somalia, for instance, disrupted food distribution, driving its child mortality rate up past that of neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya.

Research shows that reducing childhood mortality as outlined in WHO’s Millennium Development Goals means connecting expectant mothers to basic, cost-effective health services, effectively mitigating childhood illness, and encouraging breastfeeding. Other strategies include increasing immunization against measles and other preventable diseases.

Countries eager to make progress can look to health programs that have been successful in keeping newborn children healthy since the United Nations first adopted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000. Ethiopia, for example, has trained and compensated more than 38,000 health workers since 2003, sending them to rural and isolated pockets of the country. Nurses who receive training are equipped to treat tuberculosis, diarrhea, malaria, and malnutrition. The East African nation has also prioritized its rural farmers with policies that enable them to grow healthy food and economically develop their communities.

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Malawi, too, has made significant gains in reducing child mortality by connecting poor mothers with maternal resources — it counts among the six countries that met and surpassed its health spending target. Until a financial scandal compelled donors to withdraw financial support in 2013, nearly 65 percent of births in impoverished regions of the country take place in the presence of a medical professional, thanks to a program launched by the country’s Ministry of Health. “Mother’s Groups” in Zimbabwe help women and girls of all ages fulfill their responsibilities, including those related to the health and wellbeing of their children.

But improving on those gains may require some cooperation on the part of the pharmaceutical industry. While treatments for pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria are relatively cheap, prices for vaccine packages to treat a dozen sicknesses have increased by more than 2700 percent in a 10-year span. UNICEF and other global health organizations pay Western manufacturers twice as much for medication than they would have doled out to Indian and Indonesian competitors. That’s why polio and measles still have a stranglehold on many underdeveloped nations.

“We’re building momentum in many countries in the poorest parts of the world,” Dr. Mickey Chopra, UNICEF’s head of global programs, said last year amid the release of a report highlighting how preventable disease caused child mortality rates to soar. “The challenge is to spread what works. It is very, very easy to prevent those three diseases from killing kids. An antibiotic is 10, 20 cents, and that saves the life basically.”