Child Mortality: Progress, Yes, But Much More to Do

Seeing children suffer is a horrible constant in the world. More than a decade ago, on an assignment for Church World Service, I visited a displacement camp in Mashlak, outside of the city of Herat, Afghanistan, and saw large numbers of malnourished children, some of them dying from diarrhea. The tell-tale signs of hunger - stunting, sunken eyes and bloated stomachs - were all there. To say it was heartbreaking doesn't even begin to describe it.

Well before my visit to Afghanistan in 2001, the United Nations, as part of its overall Millenium Development Goals, made reducing child mortality a key priority. Among the stated goals for reducing child mortality (the fourth goal out of eight goals) was to reduce under-5 child mortality rates by two-thirds by the year 2015. In order to reduce child mortality, this goal stepped up efforts to increase measles immunizations.

As we approach 2015, how are we doing?

Thankfully, progress has been steady - though we are not yet fully there. The United Nations reports that the number of children under 5 who died declined from 12.4 million in 1990 to 6.9 million in 2011 - or about 14,000 fewer children dying daily. Good, but not yet there.

Moreover, some parts of the world are still facing real problems. As the UN notes: "Despite determined global progress in reducing child deaths, an increasing proportion of child deaths are in sub-Saharan Africa where 1 in 9 children die before the age of 5 and in Southern Asia where 1 in 16 die before age 5."

And, while the rate of deaths of under-5 children declines overall, "the proportion that occurs during the first month after birth is increasing," the UN reports.

I know that there are times when specific incidents worsen already-bad situations for the very young. In Haiti, after the January 2010 earthquake, I visited a feeding center in Port-au-Prince where many of the children were clearly underweight already. The earthquake had made it even more difficult for mothers to feed their children. Judith Jules tended to her 6-month-old; she and other mothers spoke of joblessness, of children being sick, of uncertainty about the future.

"Things here have been hard. Even more than hard," Jules said.

If that was a reminder of long-standing problems in a country with so many existing and chronic problems for children, the situation in Kenya provides another glimpse into the realities facing the young.

As my CWS colleague Sammy Mutua notes, the problem of families having trouble feeding themselves is becoming increasingly pronounced in urban areas like Nairobi as more and more people move away from rural areas. "Poverty in Africa is becoming more and more urbanized," he said.

During the Horn of Africa food crisis two years ago, carpenter and Nairobi resident Marselus Odongo Ragweli told me about his 1-year-old son Philip, who was suffering from food deficiencies. (The family was having a hard time because of Kenya's and Nairobi's increasingly pinched economy and was having a hard time keeping food on the table.) Luckily, Philip was receiving a peanut-based protein supplement called Plumpy'nut that provides young children with needed nutrients.

The supplement was a lifesaver, pointing to an essential truth: Lacking proper nutrition, a child will face life-long problems - malnutrition is particularly harmful to children during the first 1,000 days of life. Without needed minerals and vitamins during that critical time, the results can be devastating for a child's long-term growth, health and cognitive development.

The world is increasingly aware of this - and is starting to act more intentionally on the problem. But we must do even more if we are to reach that still-elusive goal of drastically reducing child mortality rates by 2015.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.