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UN Reports Fewer Children Dying From Preventable Causes

A new report finds that last year the number of children dying before their fifth birthday fell below 10 million for the first time since the United Nations has been keeping records. But, the U.N. Children's Fund, which has just launched its latest Progress For Children Study, reports much more needs to be done to improve the health and well being of children around the world. Data collected from more than 50 countries is used to monitor progress towards international goals and targets, including the Millennium Development Goals. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

In 1960, the report notes about 20 million children under age five were dying every year. That number has fallen to less than half. The U.N. Children's Fund attributes this to significant improvements in several key child survival interventions.

For example, it says all countries surveyed in sub-Saharan Africa made progress in expanding coverage of insecticide-treated nets, a fundamental tool in halting malaria. In the 47 countries where 95 percent of measles deaths occur, it says immunization coverage rose, resulting in fewer deaths.

It says rates of exclusive breastfeeding of infants have significantly improved in 16 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, leading to fewer infant deaths.

But the editor of the report, Catherine Langevin-Falcon, says there have been shortfalls in other areas. "There has been less progress in expanding treatment coverage for major childhood diseases such as pneumonia and malaria, for example," she says. "Since 1990, the prevalence of under-nutrition has dropped from 32 percent to 27 percent. But, still 143 million children under five suffer from under-nutrition, more than half of them in south Asia. More than 500,000 women still die every year as a result of complications during pregnancy in childbirth. About half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa."

The report notes the highest under-five mortality rates are found in countries affected by conflict or in countries where HIV is widespread.

UNICEF Chief of Health and Nutrition Peter Salama says deaths can be substantially reduced by combining a range of activities, such as distributing Vitamin A during polio or measles immunization campaigns. "If you take the area of insecticide treated nets for the prevention of malaria, what we have noticed is that the best way to deliver those nets is through other programs - for example, immunization campaigns, or anti-natal tests or routine immunization," he explains. "And, that is a really important recognition that we are going to get the most bang for the buck by actually putting programs together and getting mortality reduction as a consequence."

In addition to child survival, the report says progress also has been made in education, gender equality and child protection. It says the number of primary-school age children who are out of school has fallen by about 20 percent and more girls are going to school than before.

The Report says the harmful practice of female genital mutilation is still unacceptably high, but has declined over the past 15 years, and child marriage is becoming less common.