Editor's note: Adam Turville did the vast majority of the work on this piece.
Around the world, on average, 18,000 children under the age of 5 died every day in 2012. While this tragic fact is definitely cause for concern, it may also provide room for optimism. This is only half the number of under-5 deaths compared to 1990. With the global population constantly growing over the past two decades, the reduction in infant mortality provides reason for hope going forward.
This may surprise some who think that prospects for improvement are dim and progress is slow. Increasing globalization and heightened access to media outlets has kept the plight of children, as well as adults, across the globe consistently before our eyes. The education brought about by exposure to the problems is surely beneficial, but it may also create the impression that conditions are only worsening.
The improving numbers may not be surprising to those who have tracked the United Nations Millennial Development Goals since their inception in 2000. The eight goals address issues such as poverty reduction, disease prevention and education. The fourth goal focuses on infant and child mortality, aiming for a two-thirds reduction of under-5 deaths from 1990 to 2015.
Although the data show that we will likely fall short of the fourth goal's target of 2015, the improvements are nonetheless remarkable. Success stories include those that are told about Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Liberia, Malawi, Nepal, Timor-Leste and the United Republic of Tanzania all having lowered under-5 mortality rates by two-thirds or more since 1990.
The good news continues as we note that success has been widespread. Every region except Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania has reduced under-5 mortality by more than 50 percent.
As the overall rate has declined, the largest reduction has occurred in deaths among those whose ages were from 2 months to 5 years old. In many cases, deaths occurring at these ages are largely preventable through vaccines and disease prevention made possible by access to basic health care. Since 2000, the measles vaccine has averted roughly 10 million under-5 deaths alone.
Unfortunately, Sub-Saharan Africa still witnesses the highest under-5 mortality rate at 98 deaths per 1,000 live births. In 1990, the global rate also stood at roughly one in 10, demonstrating that Sub-Saharan Africa lags current trends by roughly 20 years.
However, there is also good news to be found in Sub-Saharan Africa. The under-5 mortality rate as measured from 1990 to 1995 was reduced at an average of 0.8 percent annually, but that rate increased to 4.1 percent from 2005 to 2012.
As the eradication of under-5 mortalities advances, full resolution of the remaining problem becomes more targeted, albeit not easier.
India, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan and China account for roughly half of under-5 deaths, with India (22 percent) and Nigeria (13 percent) together comprising more than a third.
While causes are varied, there are many that are recognizable. They include pneumonia, preterm and intraterm birth complications, diarrhea and malaria. Forty-five percent of all under-5 deaths are still attributable to malnutrition.
Credit for the progress goes to increasingly healthy and educated parents, supported by the efforts of countless NGOs, innovative companies and government organizations that fight to defend the most vulnerable of the world’s citizens.
Progress should be applauded. And although we have an immense amount of work still to accomplish, perhaps a pause to acknowledge where we have come from provides a much-needed boost of positive energy as we continue to address challenges related to the promotion of future generations’ health.
John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford. Adam Turville is an economic analyst at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development and a graduate of Brigham Young University.