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Way Fewer Kids Are Dying, But There’s a Catch

Childhood mortality rates are in freefall, which is good news if you're not in Sub-Saharan Africa.

flickr / Thomas Hawk

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in September that the cancer death-rate in children has declined 20 percent since 1999, it was cause for celebration. Now, researchers have found that the good news on childhood mortality rates is better than they might have hypothesized. A new report from the University of Washington shows that reports that deaths among children and adolescents have decreased from nearly 14.2 million in 1990 to 7.2 million in 2015.

To find the encouraging results, Dr. Nicholas J. Kassebaum and his colleagues at the Global Burden of Disease Child and Adolescent Health Collaboration colleagues looked at the mortality and nonfatal health outcomes in children and adolescents in 195 countries. Thought the overall trends was profoundly positive, the study made it very clear that largely solvable public health problems are still causing massive loss of life. Among the issues that led to the most deaths were neonatal preterm birth complications, lower respiratory tract infections, diarrheal deaths, congenital anomalies, malaria, neonatal sepsis, meningitis, and AIDS.

The researchers found that as the number of children dying has decreased globally, the number of children dying low-income countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa has become even more disproportionate. Greater public health assistance could close these gaps, but international efforts on that front have historically received limited government funding.

As governments and the UN have failed to step in, charitable organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have stepped up, offering vaccine, breastfeeding, and family planning services worldwide. But even those efforts haven’t proved adequate. Kassebaum and his colleagues diagnose a lack of timely data as a principal part of the problem. It’s good to know that childhood mortality has decreased over the last 25 years, but that doesn’t represent actionable data. It can’t save the lives of children at risk.