Childhood Deaths Continue to Decline, But Are We Doing All We Can?

09/22/2011 06:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 22, 2011

Each year, I eagerly await the publication of one number: the number of childhood deaths around the world. That number, which has gone down from 20 million in 1960, to about 12 million in 1990, to less than 8 million last year, makes a powerful statement about the progress the world has made in confronting inequities.

Last week, UNICEF released their annual childhood mortality report. I was pleased to see a continued decline in total deaths -- from 7.76 million in 2009 to 7.61 million in 2010. This might look like a small change -- a couple of decimal points -- until you realize that it means that over 140,000 children who would have died last year are alive today.

Every single one of those lives is precious. When you add them all together, it's a great indicator of where global development is heading.

When child mortality rates drop, all sorts of good things start happening. Women choose to have fewer children since more are surviving. Each child then receives more of the family's resources, which means they get healthier food, they get treatment when they're sick, and they can attend school. As a result, the death rate comes down even further. It's a virtuous cycle, which is why I am hopeful that these figures will continue to decline for years to come.


Another good piece of news from UNICEF's report is that every region of the world is showing progress. And where child mortality figures are the highest, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the pace of progress is accelerating.

But that does not mean we can rest on our accomplishments to date. Next year, UNICEF will publish its report again, and it's a long way before the world shrinks deaths down to zero.

If you parse the data, it is clear that we still need to increase the coverage of high-impact, low-cost interventions like vaccines, including those for pneumonia and diarrhea that are rolling out. And we need to bring down newborn deaths, which are growing as a percentage of the overall figure.

We must constantly ask ourselves -- how will we lower this number again next year? Are we doing all that we can?

This post was originally featured on Impatient Optimists, official blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.