The needless death of children is among the starkest example of inequality between the haves and have-nots of our world. For instance, poverty-wracked, war-torn Somalia has the worst child mortality rate in the world—180 deaths per 1,000 live births, virtually unchanged since 1990. Meanwhile, high-income countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Liechtenstein have a rate of fewer than 5 deaths per 1,000 live births.
By reducing the disease burden among the world’s poorest children, the world can increase child survival and make gains toward reaching one of the most elusive Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
“Scaling up simple interventions could overcome two of the biggest obstacles to increasing child survival, help give every child a fair chance to grow and thrive,” said Anthony Lake, head of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in a press release.
Pneumonia And Diarrhoea: Tackling The Deadliest Diseases For The World’s Poorest Children, is a new report by UNICEF released in advance of next week’s international "Child Survival: Call to Action" meeting in Washington D.C.
By taking on these two diseases—which claim the lives of two million children every year—in a timely fashion, countries stand a better chance of meeting the fourth MDG to reduce child mortality by two-thirds of 1990 levels by 2015.
Investing in the health of children from poor households will narrow the child survival gap between the haves and have-nots, as children living in poverty are less likely than their wealthy counterparts to have access to life-saving care. They are also more likely to be undernourished or lack safe drinking water, which makes them vulnerable to the two diseases. Babies who were not breastfed or those with inadequate zinc intake are also at greater risk of contracting pneumonia.
What is needed is by no means extraordinary and out of reach. Simple, preventative interventions are cost-effective with high payoffs, including expanding vaccination coverage, promoting breastfeeding, encouraging hand-washing and soap use, and increasing access to clean water and sanitation.
Curative interventions such as handing out oral rehydration salts to children with diarrhoea and providing antibiotics (such as amoxicillin) to children with pneumonia are affordable, but used by only a third of children in need or less. For instance, through UNICEF’s Gifts of Magic gift-giving program, 253 packets of the salts costs only $20.00.
Zinc tablets, amoxicillin and oral rehydration salts have been made “child-friendly,” made with flavours more palatable to children. More vaccines exist but have not been widely adopted. Innovative mobile-to-mobile texting has allows healthcare workers to access poor, remote communities.
If such solutions were implemented on a larger scale, pneumonia and diarrhoea would no longer account for a third of all child deaths, the overwhelming proportion of which occur mostly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
The report is “a call to action.” But the road to better health will not be easy.
“It's important to bear one point in mind though, and that is unlike some of the other diseases that have risen to prominence, diarrhea and pneumonia are quite complicated to deal with,” explained UNICEF’s Holly Newby to the Voice of America.
Yet, the costs of doing nothing are much too high when measured in the lives of innocent children.