Worldwide Child Mortality Rate Plummets; Most Deaths Preventable

Nearly two thirds of worldwide child deaths were caused by preventable diseases in 2010.

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Two thirds of all child deaths were caused by preventable infectious diseases, but the death rate of children younger than 5 sharply declined over the past 10 years, according to a report released Thursday.

Despite increased birth rates, the overall number of children who died before their fifth birthday decreased from about 9.6 million in 2000 to 7.6 million in 2010, mainly caused by decreasing pneumonia, measles, and diarrhea rates.

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The United Nations has set a goal of reducing the under-5 mortality rate by two thirds between 1990 and 2015, from 100 deaths per 1,000 live births to 33 per 1,000 live births. In 2010, the world got closer to meeting that goal, cutting the death rate to 57 per 1,000 live births.

But it's not all good news—about two thirds of childhood deaths were caused by diseases that are generally considered preventable, such as pneumonia, complications from diarrhea (most fatal cases caused by rotaviruses), malaria, and meningitis. Death rates from tetanus, measles, AIDS, and malaria declined to levels that would meet the United Nations' standards, but relatively few children die from those diseases.

"I think our treatments of those diseases have been great successes, and it speaks to our ability to scale up those interventions, but there's a lot more things we can do to prevent some of the very frequent cases of pneumonia and diarrhea," says Hope Johnson, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and coauthor of the report.

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Health officials also have to do better in the countries with the top five child populations, she says. More than 3.75 million children 5 or younger died in India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Congo, and China in 2010.

"They're large countries that haven't scaled up child survival interventions that we know can have a profound effect," she says. State-sponsored vaccine drives and infrastructure modernization in Latin America have been hugely successful in driving down child mortality rates and need to be implemented in other regions. In India and China, most vaccines are only available through expensive private companies, according to Johnson.

"Many times, India and China are the manufacturers of these vaccines and interventions, but it's about getting access for the people who live there. If we scale these up in just a few countries, it can have a dramatic effect on the overall numbers," she says.

Genetic, neonatal disorders and preterm birth complications were the most lethal factors, killing more than 2.4 million children in 2010, while 354,000 children died from accidental injury or warfare. Pneumonia killed 1 million, while diarrhea complications killed 750,000. It's sad, Johnson says, that many of those cases can be treated easily and cheaply.

"Sometimes it's just about making something like oral rehydration [drinks] more readily available," she says.

Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at jkoebler@usnews.com.