June 23, 2014 |

Everyone deserves a fifth birthday

We can stop preventable child deaths. We have made great progress, now let’s accelerate it.
Young girl wearing a white dress looks up at the camera while another girl behind her looks down.
We’ve set an ambitious goal: end preventable child deaths. Photo: PATH/Teresa Guillien.

Two years ago, PATH joined the governments of Ethiopia, India, and the United States as well as thousands of our colleagues in global health and development in an unusually straightforward effort: to end the preventable deaths of young children by 2035.

Let me restate that for those of you who aren’t used to such directness from usually cautious, evidence-fixated organizations like PATH: we’re no longer proposing to decrease preventable deaths among children younger than 5, which stood last year stood at 6.3 million infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. We’re proposing to stop them altogether.

We can stop preventable child deaths

On June 25, we’re convening with colleagues, legislators, health ministers, partners, and others at 5th Birthday and Beyond, an event in Washington, DC. We’ll meet to mark the remarkable progress made on child survival in the last 24 months and to commit ourselves to the next step—a world where every child lives to celebrate his or her fifth birthday.

We’re confident that together, we will reach our goal. A fascinating new analysis (11.3 MB PDF) by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation published in The Lancet shows why we’re so optimistic.

Infographic of several data showing declines in child deaths since 1990, including the combination of diagnostics, procedures, vaccines, new drugs, and public health campaigns equaling 4.2 million fewer child deaths.
Declines in child deaths have accelerated rapidly, especially between 1990 and 2013, as this infographic from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation shows.

Remarkable progress—so far

The study’s authors point out that, since 1970, the world has made remarkable progress in saving the lives of young children. Over the past 44 years, under-five child mortality rates dropped by a walloping 64 percent—which is even more impressive if you recall that those years encompass the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

What’s more, most countries the authors analyzed—including 43 of 48 in sub-Saharan Africa—experienced faster decreases in child mortality from 2000 to 2013 than they did during 1990 to 2000—an encouraging sign that progress may be accelerating.

The study’s authors single out three factors behind the decrease in child mortality: rising income per person, maternal education, and the availability of  new drugs, vaccines, and other health innovations. This last category, which includes many of the health innovations PATH focuses on, led to the greatest impact: 4.2 million fewer child deaths in 2013 compared to 1990.

Innovation is our sweet spot

PATH has long been known for accelerating innovations that address the leading causes of illness and death for women and children. We’ve designed, developed, and adapted more than 100 technologies, from vaccine vial monitors that alert health workers to heat damage to neonatal resuscitators that can help a baby take her first breath. And we’ve worked hard to strengthen and improve the health systems to deliver those technologies.

One of our unique strengths is breaking down barriers that keep health solutions from achieving impact at scale. We develop targeted solutions, test and refine them, gain regulatory approval, foster supportive policies, develop markets, commercialize products, and work with partners to scale them up where they are needed.

We’re more convinced than ever that these types of innovation are crucial to establishing a world in which no child dies of a preventable cause. And we’re encouraged that data published in The Lancet points firmly in the direction we’ve been headed for almost 40 years.

What’s your number?

But why zero deaths? Why not pick a more “realistic” goal? This is not the time to back down. Though we’ve made impressive progress, it’s hard to celebrate that progress when last year 6.3 million young children died of preventable causes. If 6.3 million are too many, what number can we live with—4 million? 2 million?

I know the number I can live with—it’s zero. And I’m confident we can get there.

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  • Portrait of a smiling woman.
    Rachel Wilson was formerly the senior director of Advocacy and Public Policy at PATH.