Africa still suffering despite global drop in death rate for infants


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The Independent Online

The number of children who die of starvation or disease before the age of five has fallen by 12,000 a day since the United Nations set the developed world a goal 21 years ago.

That goal, which was supposed to see infant mortality around the world fall by two thirds between 1990 and 2015, is a long way from being achieved and the 2015 deadline is likely to be missed. But the good news is that infant mortality has fallen by at least 30 per cent in every affected region.

In 1990, 12 million children did not live to see their fifth birthday. The equivalent figure for 2010 was 7.6 million. Under-fives are still dying at a rate of 21,000 a day around the world, but that compares with the 1990 figure of 33,000 a day. Some parts of the globe, including Northern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, much of Asia and the developed world, have achieved a 50 per cent drop.

But the picture is much bleaker in Sub-Saharan Africa, where malaria is still a major killer, and one child in eight dies before the age of five, more than twice the global average of 57 in every 1,000 live births. There are 25 countries in the world with an infant mortality rate above one in 10. All but Afghanistan and Haiti are in Africa.

Somalia has the world's highest rate, at 180 per 1,000. The next four, in order, are Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone and Chad. The UK rate is five per 1,000. The lowest rate is in Iceland, where it is two per 1,000.

But four of the five countries that have achieved the greatest reductions over the same period are also African – Liberia, Malawi, Niger and Sierra Leone – the other being East Timor. And Unicef's annual report Levels & Trends in Child Mortality, published yesterday, shows the speed at which the under-five mortality rate is declining in sub-Saharan Africa doubled from 1.2 per cent a year during 1990-2000 to 2.4 per cent a year during 2000-2010.

In Sierra Leone, which is one of the poorest countries and where Tony Blair sent in British troops to end a vicious civil war in 2000, the government abolished all fees for child and maternal health, and the infant death rate fell from 276 to 174 per 1,000.

Niger had the world's highest infant mortality in 1990, at 311 per 1,000. That has been cut to 143 by setting up thousands of new health centres with trained staff to reduce the huge distances mothers had to travel for help.

Anthony Lake, executive director of UNICEF, said: "The news that the rate of child mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa is declining twice as fast as it was a decade ago shows that we can make progress even in the poorest places, but we cannot for a moment forget the chilling fact of around 21,000 children dying every day from preventable causes."