NIAMEY, Niger – According to a new study published by Save the Children, Niger has made the most improvement worldwide in reducing the number of unnecessary deaths in children under the age of 5. As one of the world’s poorest countries, Niger was hit with a serious drought in 2005 that led to widespread and lasting hunger throughout the country. In spite of this, the report finds that the country is well on its way to achieving the fourth UN Millennium Development Goal of reducing under-five mortality rates by two-thirds by 2015.
Though the number of child deaths still remains relatively high, they have been reduced from 326 in 1,000 in 1990 to 114 in 1,000 in 2012 – an incredible 65 percent reduction. These remarkable strides have in large part been attributed to improved health care nationwide. The government has made good on their pledge to provide free health care to pregnant women and children. Other government initiatives that have helped to lower the mortality rate include nutrition programs and an extension of clinics and health services into remote parts of the country. Also aiding in the reduction are increases in immunization rates, improved treatment of pneumonia (one of the leading causes of death in children), and a shift towards exclusive breastfeeding.
That which is most remarkable about Niger’s reduced mortality rate in comparison to other countries is the fact that it is meeting a “triple bottom line” – that is, the reduction of child mortality is being achieved in an equitable and sustainable manner. The children who have benefited from the initiatives are spread across all income groups, all geographic areas, and both sexes. Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, says of the improvements, “Niger’s political commitment and investments in child health have paid off in progress to date, and have set the stage for further reductions in child mortality over the longer-term.”
In contrast to these tremendous improvements in Niger, the same report finds that inequality is worsening in some regions of the world, further jeopardizing child health. In both Bangladesh and Cambodia, overall gains in child health risk becoming stagnant unless health services are made more equitable. Sub-Saharan Africa, an area that includes half of all child deaths, has seen an increase in the gap between rich and poor children in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Furthermore, the mortality rates in girls versus boys are becoming generally worse by an average of one percentage point each year.
Nevertheless, Niger is being hailed as an example of the tremendous strides that can be made in reducing child mortality if the proper steps are taken. In order to see similar results elsewhere, Save the Children has called on national leaders to reaffirm their commitment to reducing child mortality. The organization is calling on the U.S. government specifically to take a position as a global leader in these efforts. They have asked that the U.S. continue to provide adequate funding to address health and nutrition issues worldwide; that the government fulfill commitments made at the Nutrition for Growth conference towards addressing global nutrition; and to announce concrete plans at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health (to be held in Brazil in November 2013) for ensuring that every child has access to a qualified health care worker.
– Rebecca Beyer