Child deaths still a pressing issue
by Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF, Representative in Viet Nam
(VNS) Over the past two decades the world has made huge strides in reducing child deaths.
Today, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and partners release new figures showing the number of children dying before their fifth birthday has nearly halved from 12 million in 1990, to just 6.9 million in 2011.
Viet Nam has achieved impressive reductions in the under-five mortality rate in recent years. The rate has dropped significantly, from 66 children (per 1,000 live births) who die before their fifth birthday in 2000, to 16 in 2011. Yet, despite commendable progress, 87 children under five still die each day in Viet Nam from preventable causes.
Under the banner of "Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed",
UNICEF and other key partners are inviting governments, citizens, faith-based organisations and the private sector to unite around one clear and compelling goal: to give every child the best possible start in life.
A hundred governments and numerous organisations have already signed a pledge to increase action and achieve this. The Government of Viet Nam is one of the signatories and has renewed its commitment to the nation's children.
Globally, the story of child survival over the past two decades is a paradox of stirling success and unfinished business. Prioritising and investing in child survival and their early years means fewer deaths, better lives and long-term benefits for society as a whole.
But that lesson is not always clear, and children from poor rural areas are statistically much more likely to die before their fifth birthday than those in urban areas, while disadvantage or marginalised populations often bear the burden of child deaths.
This is especially true in Viet Nam. Here, an ethnic minority child under five is nearly four times more likely to die before their fifth birthday than a non-ethnic minority one.
A concerted push is needed to ensure that all children - no matter where and to whom they are born - survive and thrive.
Collectively, we have the knowledge, tools, treatments and technology to save millions of lives every year.
We know what the biggest killers of young children are here in Viet Nam: over half of under-five deaths occur in the first 28 days of life due to premature birth and factors related to poor antenatal care and birth facilities.
Pneumonia and diarrhoea are the next biggest causes of death and the most common reasons why a mother brings her child to a health clinic.
We know that most child deaths occur during the first crucial months of life; that a child's chances of survival improve when the mother is healthy and that poor nutrition is an underlying cause in many premature deaths.
And we know what to do about it!
Inexpensive solutions are within reach, such as vaccines against measles, polio and mother-to-child transmission of HIV; oral-rehydration salts and zinc to treat diarrhoea; antibiotics for pneumonia; and oxytocin preventing women from bleeding to death after childbirth.
But let me emphasise this: Saving lives is not only about health interventions.
Access to improved water and sanitation, hand washing with soap, exclusive breastfeeding, better nutrition for mothers and babies is crucial if we want to prevent the needless deaths of countless women and children.
Education is another part of the equation. A child born to a woman who can read is much more likely to live past their fifth birthday than one born to an illiterate mother.
The message is unequivocal: we can radically reduce child deaths - in the world as a whole and here in Viet Nam. Sound strategies, increases in known and effective interventions, adequate resources - and above all - political will are imperative.
The Vietnamese Government's new grass roots initiative and recently approved plans on health, nutrition, immunisation, maternal and reproductive health all provide hope. The amended Labour Code extending maternity leave will contribute to the chances of a mother providing the best start in life - exclusive breast milk for six months.
With its renewed promise to save children's lives, we take this opportunity to call on the Government to seize the opportunity to build on the achievements of the past two decades. Everybody has a role to play whether in Government, communities or individual families. Together we can, and we will, work towards making preventable child deaths a thing of the past and give every child an equal opportunity to survive. — VNS