Children in many African countries have a better shot at a healthy life than ever before. We’re marking the International Day of the African Child on June 16 by taking stock of the encouraging if uneven progress Africa has made in the past two decades in improving the odds of survival for children.
There is still a long way to go. But the overall picture for Africa’s children includes bright spots, promising trends, and the prospect of a future when all children have an equal chance to live full and healthy lives.
1. Africa is making strides against the top killers of children.
A half-million fewer African children under age five died between 1990 and 2010 from diarrheal disease and lower respiratory infections such as pneumonia, two of the leading child killers. Premature death and disability from diarrheal diseases fell 34 percent in that period, and death and disability from lower respiratory infections dropped 22 percent, according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME).
2. A global effort to stamp out malaria is saving children’s lives.
The scale-up of proven malaria interventions saved an estimated 3.3 million lives between 2000 and 2012—90 percent of them young children in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
3. Innovation is driving a sharp decline in child deaths.
In sub-Saharan Africa, deaths of children under age five dropped 39 percent between 1990 and 2011, according to the United Nations. Even better news: Since the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted in 2000, the rate of decline has accelerated in 90 percent of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, according to IHME. Globally, new vaccines, drugs, diagnostics, and other health innovations led to 4.2 million fewer child deaths in 2013 compared to 1990, according to IHME.
4. More mothers are surviving pregnancy and childbirth.
Maternal deaths in sub-Saharan Africa began a rapid decline following the adoption of the MDGs. Between 2005 and 2010, maternal mortality dropped by 11.4 percent, in part because of the scale-up of antiretroviral therapy for HIV and AIDS, according to IHME. The odds of survival for children rise sharply when their mothers can care and provide for them.
5. More children—especially girls—are going to school.
The primary school enrollment rate for African girls jumped from 47 percent in 1990 to 75 percent in 2011, with the rate for boys rising from 58 percent to 79 percent in the same period, according to the UN. That’s an especially promising sign for Africa’s efforts to drive down child mortality because maternal education is a key driver of child survival.
6. More children are gaining access to clean water.
Since 1990, more than 2.1 billion people gained access to improved sources of drinking water around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, the UN estimates that the proportion of people using improved water sources rose from 49 percent in 1990 to 63 percent in 2011.
7. Better nutrition is improving the odds of child survival.
Risk factors like suboptimal breastfeeding, vitamin deficiencies, and childhood underweight are on the decline in Africa, according to IHME, leaving children less vulnerable to illness and disease.
8. More children are getting lifesaving vaccines.
Vaccination coverage has steadily improved in many African countries over the past two decades, according to UNICEF and WHO. Vaccines save an estimated 2 to 3 million young lives per year worldwide.
- Kathleen Donnelly was formerly a writer and PATH blog editor at PATH.