June 14, 2012 |

A call to action to save children

Watch our video on the use of oral rehydration therapy in Kenya.

Today and Friday, hundreds of experts and leaders in global health will meet in Washington, DC, to identify ways to reach one ambitious goal. They want to end preventable child deaths, aiming to reduce the number of deaths by 70 percent in the next generation. You can read about the event on the US Agency for International Development’s 5th Birthday website and at UNICEF’s A Promise Renewed site. At PATH, much of our work is focused on this goal, so we asked Erin Fry, our government affairs officer for child health, what we need to know to understand this week’s Child Survival Call to Action.

Q. The call to action focuses on child survival. What are the biggest challenges to children’s lives?

A. When you ask Americans what the biggest killers of children are, they’ll often say HIV, TB, malaria. These are definitely important, but diarrhea and pneumonia are the biggest killers of kids under age 5 and deserve just as much attention. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, often with some pretty simple solutions. And I want to point out that deaths within the first six months of life also contribute significantly to the mortality rate for children. So, improving health for mothers is important to saving lives at birth and also growing healthy children.

Q. How big is the problem?

A. Every year 7.6 million children die. While new tools are certainly needed to protect children, we could prevent at least two-thirds of those deaths using solutions we already have.

Q. Like what?

At PATH, we’re looking at a lot of ways to prevent and treat the conditions that kill kids. One thing that sets us apart is our focus on integrated approaches to a problem. To take just one example, diarrheal disease, we’re working to develop new vaccines and our new drug development affiliate OneWorld Health is working on new ORS [oral rehydration solution] formulations to save kids with diarrhea. At the same time, we’re working on country-led plans to provide better access to ORS. And we’re looking at what it takes to get mothers to treat their children who have diarrheal disease, so there’s a behavioral component, too.

Many of the tools that prevent diarrheal disease also help prevent other conditions like pneumonia and malaria—things like breastfeeding exclusively during the first six months, providing safe water, and introducing new vaccines and keeping those vaccines at the right temperature so they’re effective.

Q. If we already know how to save kids’ lives, why aren’t we doing it?

A. A lot of it has to do with equity. For example, about 20 percent of kids go unvaccinated, and they’re often the hardest to reach and the most vulnerable. Reaching them could really go a long way to making things better. So what stands in our way? Often, it’s a lack of resources. Sometimes it’s lack of political will. There are so many needs that face policymakers. When they’re deciding how to allocate resources and what to prioritize, unfortunately child health is not always on the top of the list.

Q. How can an event like this help?

A. What this call to action does is mobilize and reenergize the child survival movement that got going in the 1980s. We’re making great progress—in 1990 more than 12 million children died every year and now it’s 7.6 million. But there’s still so much more we can do to make sure kids survive. An event like this builds support and engagement in future efforts. In September, for example, a special session of the UN General Assembly will be looking at global commitments to end preventable child deaths. It’s time to refocus on that goal.

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  • Erin Fry Sosne is a policy officer in our Advocacy and Public Policy Program at PATH.