Millennium Development Goal #4: reduce child mortality

Ashish Vaidya

We all remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Nearly three thousand human lives were ended when those planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field in western Pennsylvania. Certainly, we can all agree that it was a tragedy of devastating proportions.

Now, imagine ten tragedies of the same magnitude, in which all of the victims are children less than five years old. This is what is happening worldwide every single day. That’s right. According to UNICEF, thirty thousand children under the age of five die every day, mostly from preventable or treatable illnesses. That adds up to 11 million children every year-an ongoing holocaust of neglect.

Needless to say, the vast majority of these deaths occur in the poorer nations of the world. In wealthy nations, only one out of every 143 children dies before the age of five, according to the Millennium Campaign website. In low income countries, the number is one in ten. The situation is particularly dire in sub-Saharan Africa. In the oil-rich, but poverty-drenched nation of Angola, for example, one out of every four children born will not live to see their fifth birthday. Think about that for a second. That means that an average woman with four children in Angola (and most women in Angola have at least six children) can expect at least one of those children to die before the age of five. In the 21st Century, this is inexcusable.

There are many causes for this horrendous situation. One is the fact that a majority of poor countries exist in a tropical climate, where many diseases naturally thrive. Another cause, truly at the core of issue, is the extreme poverty that exists in many countries, which prevents people from protecting themselves against disease and from receiving the treatment that they need. Malaria, carried by mosquitoes, kills between one and three million people every year, most of whom are children under five. Pneumonia, which is fairly common and often easily treated in industrialized countries, accounts for 20 percent of child deaths worldwide. Diarrhea, resulting from a lack of access to safe drinking water, is responsible for 12 percent. Children are especially susceptible to diseases because they have not had the time to develop the immunity that adults have.

We cannot change the climate of the tropics or the nature of disease. But by taking the step of halving extreme poverty (i.e. the number of people living on less than $1 per day, currently estimated at 1.1 billion by the World Bank) by 2015, we can make significant progress in reducing child mortality. After all, it is because of extreme poverty that many families in Asia, Africa, and Latin America cannot afford simple prevention measures such as insecticide-treated bed netting. Studies by UNICEF and the World Health Organization have shown that placing these mosquito-blocking nets around beds while people sleep would reduce the number of deaths from malaria by more than half. Simply ensuring universal distribution of these inexpensive nets could save many young lives. Though a more costly and complicated affair, providing access to safe drinking water would all but solve the diarrhea problem. In the meantime, more efforts should focus on teaching parents about simple oral hydration, a combination of sugars and salts that help children survive severe bouts of diarrhea.

Because the fragile immune systems of children leave them vulnerable, vaccination is also critical. Considering that a highly effective measles vaccine has been available in the United States since 1968, there is no reason half a million children should die of measles every year. Yet, this was the grim statistic published by the World Health Organization in 2003. Nor is there any reason malaria should kill as many children as it does. While a malaria vaccine has yet to be developed, the W. H. O. says that artimisinin (a drug based on a Chinese herb) in combination with other antimalarials has proven to be very effective in treating malaria. Unfortunately, even at only $3 per treatment, this drug combination is beyond the means of many countries since their entire health care expenditure is less than $10 per capita per year.

Is it unfair to compare the situation of the world’s children to the Holocaust? Indeed, it would be wrong to accuse the leaders of the developed world, pharmaceutical companies, or anyone else of anything like the malice and cruelty of Hitler and the Nazis. But remember that the vast majority of these children are dying of treatable diseases, which means that we cannot simply write the deaths off as unavoidable. Rather, they are caused by unwillingness on the part of all of us to face the problems of global poverty.

Remember than inaction is complicity. By refusing to get involved, we contribute to the problem. Please write to your senators and congressperson today and let them know that you care about child mortality and the Millennium Development Goals. Demanding action from our government is the least we can do.