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What Causes Child Mortality and What Can be Done to Prevent It?

Poor nutrition, polllution, and lack of healthcare contribute to child mortality

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Rosheda, 20, holds her malnourished child, 2 months old, in front of her hut. She is too poor to afford enough food and the child will likely die without aid
Andre Malerba/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Dear EarthTalk: What are the leading causes of child mortality around the world, and what can be done about it?
-- Susan Hale, Oquawka, IL

The child mortality statistics are staggering. In the world’s poorest countries, over 30,000 children under the age of five die each day from preventable causes related to conditions of extreme poverty.

Rock Star Bono and others tried to call attention to child mortality last year in television ads showing well-known celebrities snapping their fingers every three seconds, each snap representing another tragic child death.

Poor Nutrition, Polluted Drinking Water Contribute to Child Mortality
A baby girl born in Sub-Saharan Africa today faces a 22 percent risk of death by age 15, and more than a third of casualties are babies who don’t survive their first month. They suffer from low birth weight due to their mothers’ poor nutrition, and then lack access to adequate nutrition themselves. The World Health Organization says that poverty-related malnutrition is the key factor in over half of all childhood deaths.

Many children suffer from debilitating infections virtually right out of the womb, and analysts say that often casualties could be prevented if just basic sanitation were available. Drinking-water pollution is a leading culprit. In areas that lack proper sanitation and that may have just one water source, supplies can easily become contaminated from bacteria in human waste and garbage. According to United Nations statistics, as many as four billion people--two-thirds of global population--lack access to safe, clean water.

Concern about child mortality from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spurred renewed efforts to increase education and distribute low-cost but needed tools such as antibiotics and sterile medical implements.

“Some global health problems, like AIDS, have no easy solution--but this isn’t one of them,” says computer-geek-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates. “The world has an opportunity to stop millions of newborn deaths each year.”

Poor Countries Can’t Afford Healthcare
Debt and population issues are also among the underlying causes of the global tragedy of child mortality. Some poor nations must pay more in service of international loans than on the health and education of their people. Yielding to pressure from Make Poverty History advocates, leaders of the world’s top industrialized nations last year agreed to cancel $40 billion in debt owed by the world’s 18 poorest countries. However, experts point out that this only covers about a sixth of the debt owed, for example, by African nations.

Birth Rates and Child Mortality Up, Family Planning Support Down
Birth rates continue to soar well above the replacement level of two children per couple, and population is growing well beyond the “carrying capacity” of these poor countries. This has a profound effect on the environment as well as on human misery.

According to Population Action International (PAI), “More than 200 million women in the developing world today wish to delay or end childbearing but do not have access to modern and effective contraceptives.”

In spite of this, the Bush Administration has steadily cut family planning aid to developing countries in the name of preventing abortions, though on June 9 of this year the House overwhelmingly adopted a bill to restore aid that had been previously cut. Says PAI, “U.S. leadership and investments in international family planning assistance are critical in order to ensure healthy mothers, healthy pregnancies, and ultimately, healthy families.”

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EarthTalk is a regular feature of E/The Environmental Magazine. Selected EarthTalk columns are reprinted on About Environmental Issues by permission of the editors of E.

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