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Tackling deadliest diseases for world’s poorest children can yield huge gains

NEW YORK (June 8, 2012) — A new report from UNICEF focuses on the huge potential to narrow the child survival gap between the richest and the poorest by focusing on pneumonia and diarrhea—the two primary killers of children under the age of five.

The new UNICEF report, Pneumonia and Diarrhea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world’s poorest children, identifies a tremendous opportunity to narrow the child survival gap both among and within countries by increasing commitment, attention and funding.
 
“We know what works against pneumonia and diarrhea—the two illnesses that hit the poorest hardest,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. “Scaling up simple interventions could overcome two of the biggest obstacles to increasing child survival, help give every child a fair chance to grow and thrive.” 

Pneumonia and diarrhea account for nearly 1/3 of the deaths among children under five globally–or more than 2 million lives each year. Nearly 90% of deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The prevention and treatments for both diseases often overlap, and include such basic steps as increasing vaccine coverage; encouraging breastfeeding and hand-washing with soap; expanding access to safe drinking water and sanitation; and disseminating oral rehydration salts to children with diarrhea and antibiotics to children with bacterial pneumonia.

The UNICEF report is being issued shortly before the launch of a major global initiative on child survival in Washington, D.C. on June 14-15 convened by the governments of Ethiopia, India and the United States, and organized in close collaboration with UNICEF. Focused on ending preventable child death through the survival of newborns, children and mothers, the Child Survival Call to Action will bring together 700 prominent leaders from government, the private sector, faith-based organizations and civil society to kick off a long-term, focused effort to save children's lives.

The potential for saving children’s lives is huge if proven, cost-effective interventions for pneumonia and diarrhea can be scaled up to reach the most disadvantaged children.

The report says that more than 2 million children’s lives could be saved in the 75 countries with the highest mortality burden if each country’s entire population of children under five years of age received the coverage already achieved by the wealthiest 20% in those countries. 

The report presents an array of data showing progress and challenges over the past several decades.

Appropriate care for children with pneumonia symptoms is haphazard, with less than 1/3 of affected children receiving antibiotics. Oral rehydration salts, a traditional, low-cost response for children with diarrhea, are used by only 1/3 of sick children in developing countries—signaling a failure to deliver one of the tried and true child survival interventions.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to safeguard babies from disease is exclusive breastfeeding. Yet fewer than 40% of infants younger than six months of age in developing countries are exclusively breastfed, depriving them of this critical protection.

Across developing countries, the poor are less likely than the wealthy to receive these lifesaving interventions.

New vaccines against the major causes of pneumonia and diarrhea are already available. The report found that most low-income countries have introduced the Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine. While pneumococcal conjugate vaccines are also increasingly available, low-income countries urgently need to introduce them into routine immunization programs.

Innovations also help to make a difference. Child-friendly zinc and amoxicillin tablets and flavored oral rehydration salts in packets are more palatable to children, and new uses for mobile technology and texting are enabling health workers to reach farther into remote communities and other areas where children are at greatest risk. 

“Innovation has helped save millions of lives; it can and will save many more,” said Mr. Lake.

About UNICEF

UNICEF has saved more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization in the world. Working in more than 150 countries, UNICEF provides children with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief, and more. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF supports UNICEF's work through fundraising, advocacy, and education in the United States.

UNICEF is at the forefront of efforts to reduce child mortality worldwide. There has been substantial progress: the annual number of under-five deaths dropped from more than 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010. But still, 21,000 children die each day from preventable causes. Our mission is to do whatever it takes to make that number zero by giving children the essentials for a safe and healthy childhood. For more information, visit www.unicefusa.org.

For additional information, please contact:
Susannah Masur, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 212.880.9146, smasur@unicefusa.org
Kiní Schoop, U.S. Fund for UNICEF, 212.922.2634, kschoop@unicefusa.org