World Health Organization Reports Dramatic Declines in Child Mortality

In 1950, a full 25 percent of infants born around the world died before reaching their fifth birthday. After a concerted effort to brings this down, today only 7 percent of infants born around the world die before reaching their fifth birthday. Too many children to be sure, but an incredible decline in only a few decades.

In fact the decline in child mortality outpaced World Health Organization goals. In 1990 the World Summit for Children set a target goal of 70 deaths per 1,000 live births by the year 2000 — at that time there were 85 child deaths per 1,000 live births. The current rate is actually an estimated 67 deaths per 1,000 live births.

To put those in absolute numbers, last year 10.5 million children under the age of five died compared to 12.7 million in 1990, even though the world population in 1999 was significantly higher than in 1990. If things had remained as they stood in 1950, a staggering 25 to 30 million children would have died last year alone.

What caused the decline? A combination of factors but primarily improvements in nutrition, environmental factors such as effective sanitation and clean water supplies, and better use of basic medical intervention such as oral rehydration therapy to combat childhood diarrhea. In 1990 an estimated 3.5 million children died from diarrhea-related problems, but by the end of the decade that number had been cut in half as the use of oral rehydration zoomed from 40% to 69% of diarrhea cases in the developing world.

Not that there aren’t troubling trends on the horizon. There are still 57 countries that haven’t yet reach the 70 deaths per 1,000 live births target, and they tend to be the countries you’d expect — Afghanistan, Somalia, Liberia, Niger. Seven countries actually saw increases in child mortality — Botswana, Namibia, Niger, Zambia, Zimbabwe, North Korea and Papua New Guinea. For the most part child mortality showed little change or increased for the same reason most of those countries have a multitude of other problems; they tend to be countries where corruption, authoritarianism and/or war is high while respect for human rights is very low.

The HIV/AIDS epidemic also poses potential problems, with some WHO experts predicting that the disease might stop further improvement in childhood mortality in its tracks in Africa.

Still, overall, the WHO report is very good news for anyone who cares about the quality of life for the world’s children.


Drop in world child mortality reaches target, new study shows but many countries lagging. Press release, World Health Organization, October 12, 2000.

Bulletin of the World Health Organization: Special Theme – Child Mortality. The World Health Organization, Volume 78, Number 10, Bulletin 2000, 1172-1282.

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