WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Global efforts to promote childhood immunization, breast-feeding and anti-malaria measures have helped cut by nearly a quarter the death rate of children under age 5 since 1990, UNICEF said on Wednesday.
Strong improvements in China and India helped drive a decline in worldwide child mortality, but children still died at very high rates in large regions of Africa south of the Sahara, United Nations Children's Fund figures showed.
UNICEF said 9.7 million children under the age of 5 died worldwide in 2006. Nearly half, 4.8 million, were in Sub-Saharan Africa, said Dr. Peter Salama, UNICEF chief of global health.
He said war and the AIDS virus hampered progress in Africa.
"There's overall progress in reducing child mortality, but clearly 9.7 million children dying every year is completely and totally unacceptable," UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman, a former U.S. agriculture chief, said in a telephone interview.
Worldwide, the death rate for children under age 5 was 72 per 1,000 live births in 2006. Salama said that despite the recent progress, two-thirds of child deaths worldwide could be prevented using currently available health measures.
"We're below 10 million deaths for the first time," Salama said in a telephone interview. "It could be, really, that this is the tipping point -- that we now see a dramatic decline from here on in."
The 2006 rate is a 23 percent drop from 1990, when 93 per 1,000 children died before the age of 5. It is a 61 percent decrease from the rate of 184 per 1,000 in 1960, when 20 million young children died.
Some of the top causes of death were pneumonia, premature births and birth defects, diarrhea, malaria, AIDS and measles.
PUBLIC HEALTH SUCCESSES
UNICEF credited several public health campaigns for the improvement.
These included campaigns to increase childhood immunization against measles and several other diseases, provide vitamin A supplements, and convince mothers to breast-feed their children exclusively in the first six months after birth.
Other interventions included providing bed nets treated with insecticides to prevent malaria, and drug treatment for children infected with HIV, UNICEF said.
Child mortality in industrialized nations stood at 6 deaths under age 5 per 1,000 live births. That compared to 186 deaths under 5 per 1,000 live births in western and central Africa.
UNICEF said China's under-5 mortality rate dropped to 24 deaths per 1,000 in 2006 from 45 deaths for every 1,000 live births in 1990. India's under-5 mortality rate declined to 76 deaths per 1,000 in 2006 from 115 in 1990, UNICEF said.
"China and India combined have a third of the world's population. So the fact that both are making progress in terms of child mortality is going to contribute significantly to the overall result," Veneman said.
Big declines have occurred in Latin America and the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, parts of Asia and in the former Soviet states, UNICEF said. Nations that have made big strides include Morocco, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Madagascar and Sao Tome and Principe, UNICEF said.
While the region as a whole is problematic, some sub-Saharan countries have made progress, including Malawi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Rwanda and Tanzania.