Child Survival Improves, While Maternal Deaths are Politicized

Good news came from UNICEF today. The number of children under age 5 dying globally has dropped nearly in half since 1990. (This, of course, would not include the number of babies who die before they are born.)

In 1990, nearly 12 million children died. That dropped to 6.9 million in 2011. UNICEF and the UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation released the data in a report 2012 Progress Report on Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed

This is largely credited to achievements in tackling diseases, chiefly polio, measles and malaria. Every region of the world experienced progress. Just as with maternal mortality, however, the countries with the greatest problem of child mortality are in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. One-third of deaths are related to under-nutrition.

Anthony Lake, UNICEF’s Executive Director, spreads the credit around to governments, donors, agencies and families. But to tackle the “unfinished business” of millions of deaths each year, “These lives could be saved with vaccines, adequate nutrition and basic medical and maternal care. The world has the technology and know-how to do so. The challenge is to make these available to every child.”

The millions of child deaths each year contrasts strikingly with maternal deaths, which has garnered far more attention and funding. About 14,000 children under-5 die each day (6.9 million in 2011), compared to 800 women dying each day (about 287,000 in 2010) from pregnancy or childbirth.

The difference in attention likely lies in the political push driven by “reproductive health” groups. These well-funded groups have budgets for advocacy, especially focused on ginning up more money for family planning and abortion. That is, for activities to prevent children from making it to birth.

One of their top demands is for governments to add “family planning” into their annual budgets. This creates a continuous, never-ending stream of funding, oftentimes going to groups like Planned Parenthood, which then lobbies for more money. Once it is in a budget, it is nearly impossible to remove or reduce – the amount only increases.

Melinda Gates is the latest to be wooed into the family planning cabal. The wife of billionaire Bill Gates announced this year that family planning would be her life-time work, her signature issues. Their foundation held a high-profile telethon-like event in July to press African and South East Asian governments to fund family planning.

To live up to their pledges, these governments will have to get the money from somewhere. Tragically, it may come from areas of desperate need but lack powerful advocates – like maternal health, which saves both women and their babies’ lives.

Wendy Wright is the Interim Executive Director at C-FAM.