GENEVA (Reuters) - About 9.7 million children die each year before their fifth birthday, mostly from diseases that could be prevented with simple, affordable measures, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.
While the annual toll fell below 10 million for the first time, it still means more than 26,000 young children succumb every day to pneumonia, malaria and other scourges. Four million of them die in their first month of life.
“It is still completely and totally unacceptable that nearly 10 million children die every year of largely preventable causes,” UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman said, noting that many infants also lose their mothers in childbirth.
“There is a great deal of work to be done, but it shows progress has been made and can continue to be made,” she told Reuters in an interview.
UNICEF warned that despite recent advances, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East are falling short of a United Nations goal to reduce child mortality by two thirds between 1990 and 2015, to less than 5 million deaths per year.
“The enormity of the challenge should not be underestimated,” the agency said in its annual report, “The State of the World’s Children.”
The toughest steps toward the U.N. target lie ahead — attempting to boost children’s life expectancy in countries ravaged by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and plagued by weak governance and poor health systems, it said.
Sub-Saharan Africa has fared worst of the world’s regions, and now accounts for 49 percent of under-five deaths worldwide but only 22 percent of births. A child born there has a one-in-six chance of dying before turning five.
Nearly half of the 46 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have had either stable or worsening child mortality rates since 1990, the report said. Only three — Cape Verde, Eritrea and the Seychelles — are on track to meet the 2015 child survival goal.
“It is a region of the world we have to concentrate on, but we also look at it country by country,” Veneman said.
There has been “tremendous progress” in some African states — including Ethiopia and Malawi — which have reduced child mortality by 40 percent since 1990, she said, though others emerging from conflict have stalled.
Civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone has the world’s worst ranking for under-five mortality, with 270 deaths per 1,000 live births.
Children in the developing world are frequently killed by respiratory or diarrheal infections that no longer threaten lives in rich countries. Many die from measles and other diseases that can be prevented through vaccines.
Breast-feeding, vaccinations and insecticide-treated bed nets can dramatically reduce child deaths, according to UNICEF.
“There are new interventions helping save lives too, like ready-to-use therapeutic food for children. UNICEF’s purchases of Plumpynut are up exponentially,” Veneman said.
“Plumpynut” — a sweet, peanut-based mixture which does not require cooking or refrigeration — has been hugely successful in saving starving children in Niger and Ethiopia, she said.
“Without putting children in hospital, you can begin treatment for acute and severe malnutrition,” Veneman said.
Editing by Caroline Drees