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Fewer children dying, U.N. says

Global health chief credits improved sanitation, decreasing poverty and health programs that provide vaccinations.

September 13, 2007|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

Worldwide deaths for children younger than 5 dropped to an estimated 9.7 million last year, the lowest level since record-keeping began in 1960, the United Nations Children's Fund announced Wednesday.

Even as the world population has grown, the number of early childhood deaths has shrunk to less than half its modern peak in 1960, the agency found. At that time, an estimated 20 million children died before reaching their fifth birthday.

"You could say quite conclusively there are fewer children dying today than ever recorded in modern times," said Dr. Peter Salama, chief of global health for UNICEF in New York.

Salama attributed some of the decline to broad social changes, such as decreasing poverty levels, better sanitation and higher education levels among women.

He also pointed to wider adoption of several specific health programs advocated by UNICEF and international and local health authorities. More children, for example, are receiving vaccinations for childhood diseases such as measles. Breast-feeding is more widely practiced, and the use of vitamin A supplements has helped improve children's immune systems, Salama said.

"We firmly believe this could be a tipping point . . . where we may expect a real acceleration in child death declines over the coming years," he said.

Some of the most dramatic regional declines in the last 15 years have occurred in East Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, Central and Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet republics. Over the period, early child deaths have declined in these areas by between 50% and 55%.

Some countries, such as the African island countries of Madagascar and Sao Tome and Principe, have been able to reduce their death rates by more than 40% since 1999, according to the agency.

The rate in industrialized countries including the U.S. has held steady over the last 15 years at about 100,000 deaths a year.

The number of early childhood deaths remained disproportionately high in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia in 2006, Salama said. These places accounted for 7.9 million of the 9.7 million deaths worldwide.

Salama attributed the high mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa to "the twin problems of conflict and HIV/AIDS."

In India, which accounts for most of the South Asian deaths, many people still struggle with poor sanitation, diarrhea and malnutrition, he said.

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jia-rui.chong@latimes.com

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