06/25/2014 02:34 pm ET Updated Aug 25, 2014

All Parents Deserve to See Their Child's Fifth Birthday

By Carolyn Woo

Five year-olds throughout the country are still enraptured by Disney's Frozen even as they race to theaters to see the latest in animation, How to Train Your Dragon. Many will spend the summer at the pool or exploring the outdoors before the momentous milestone of entering Kindergarten.

Most parents can appreciate the (sometimes nerve-racking) inquisitiveness, self-expression and can-do attitude of 5-year-olds. It's truly a magical time.

Yet, every year millions of parents miss out on this special milestone: Their children die before reaching their fifth birthday.

In the United States, eight out of every 1,000 children born die before age 5 every year. In Mali, that number is 16 times higher, according to UNICEF. Globally, 6.6 million children -- almost New York City's entire population -- die before they turn 5.

Most of these deaths are caused by preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, measles and malaria, and, of course, malnutrition and complications at birth.

As bad as those numbers are, they are better than they used to be. This week, representatives from more than 20 countries will join many from government and private organizations in the U.S. in Washington to celebrate the progress made in preventing these deaths and to renew a pledge made two years ago to scale up effective and evidence-based approaches that can save the lives of millions more children.

In June, 2012, the governments of India, Ethiopia and the U.S. convened a forum on the issue. The initiative that resulted -- Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed -- aimed to dramatically reduce worldwide deaths of children under five to 20 or fewer by 2035. It is led by UNICEF and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The achievements to date are significant and hopeful: Over the past two decades, the number of children who die before age five has been cut in half. This year, 6 million fewer children under five will die than would have been the case 20 years ago. This has been accomplished by faith-based communities, nonprofits, governments, and the private sector around the world focusing on what works in the improvement of services and increase of healthy behaviors.

U.S. foreign assistance has played a leading role.

In Ghana, for example, a USAID-funded program has nearly doubled the number of women safely delivering at a health facility in just one year, saving the lives of thousands of women and babies who otherwise would have delivered at home without a skilled attendant. Catholic Relief Services (CRS), which implements the project in partnership with the Ghana Health Services, works with community health volunteers to reach key leaders who have the ability to sway public opinion on safe methods of child birth. Mothers' groups promote pre-natal services, institutional deliveries and essential newborn care.

In Nicaragua -- a society where men tend to be the decision makers -- U.S. foreign assistance has enabled CRS to work to improve the health of mothers and babies by training fathers in appropriate care and getting them involved in their wives' pregnancies, childbirth and infant care. These efforts resulted in significantly greater numbers of husbands involved in antenatal care, accompanying their wives to health facilities and being present at the birth of their babies.

Churches are often the most important institutions in the poorest, most remote communities where maternal and child health statistics are at their worst. This gives faith-based organizations the ability to link families with health care services. By working through extensive faith volunteer networks on health outreach services and the promotion of essential maternal and child health interventions, thousands of lives are saved.

While the results of such programs are promising -- showing that it is possible to have a sustainable impact on child mortality -- more needs to be done.

More governments, especially those of the 24 nations that account for 70 percent of maternal and child deaths globally, need to be encouraged to sustain and increase efforts to reduce the staggering number of unnecessary and preventable child deaths. Now is the time to build upon the significant advances in promoting maternal and child health to ensure that no woman or child dies of a preventable death. Achievements that include efficient delivery of child immunizations, bed nets, clean water and sanitation and quality care at birth must continue and maximize the momentum to achieve these goals.

The gathering in Washington this week presents an important opportunity for the U.S. government and others involved in this effort to reaffirm their commitment to effective action that will reduce maternal and child deaths and to encourage others to increase the long-term investments that will reach the most vulnerable children around the world.

All children have the right to reach their 5th birthday and enjoy the magical time that age has in store. We and our global neighbors have the ability to make sure millions more children do.

Carolyn Woo is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States.