Child mortality rates across sub-Saharan Africa have fallen by over 45% in the last two decades—and they’re still improving

In June, Rwanda announced that it had successfully reduced child mortality and improved maternal health per the standards set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals. The number of infant deaths per 1,000 live births was 109 in 2000; it has dropped to 32. This achievement is nothing short of remarkable.

Niger, South Sudan, Uganda, and seven others are on track to reduce under-five mortality by two thirds before the end of 2015. Six other African countries—including Malawi, Tanzania, and Ethiopia—achieved the goal by 2012.

And yet, Africa remains the region with the highest global burden of under-five deaths. So far, the reduction in under-five and infant mortality rates has resulted primarily from the prevention of deaths due to diarrhea, pneumonia, measles, and other infectious diseases after the first four weeks of life. But the deaths of newborn babies have been slightly harder to address: For example, in Rwanda, the under-five mortality rate dropped 64 percent from 1990 to 2012—the newborn death rate by 45 percent.

With support from global health agencies, efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals are working to close that gap, and have driven much of the improvements in child health. Public-private partnerships—like the $20 million Healthymagination Mother & Child Initiative between USAID, the Nigerian Ministry of Health, and GE Healthcare—are designed to implement sustainable care delivery models aimed at increasing capacity in the primary healthcare system through workforce training and capability building. Nigeria’s partnership with GE and USAID supports the ministry’s “Save One Million Lives” program and is expected to cover 300 facilities in three states. Other countries are expanding access to care by introducing strategies to reduce financial barriers to health services, such as subsidizing health insurance and eliminating user fees.

Access is important, as newborn deaths often result from labor and delivery complications, as well as premature birth. This includes birth asphyxia (oxygen deprivation during birth) and airway infections leading to respiratory failure. The underlying cause of many newborn deaths is low birth weight, which makes babies more vulnerable to infection and other stressors during the birth process. In sub-Saharan Africa low-birth-weight babies are nine times more likely to die in the first month of life compared with babies born with a normal weight.

It is encouraging that the rate of newborn deaths in Rwanda was reduced by extending the coverage of maternal and child health services. And to make further inroads, improvement of the quality of healthcare services in both rural and urban areas is underway. As part of that effort, in Ghana, the ministry of health and its implementing partner, the Ghana Health Service, is scheduled to deploy GE’s portable ultrasound into 500 health centres and Community-based Health Planning and Services (CHPS) compounds operated by midwives over the next year. Although the technology is available, training and education is essential, and therefore is supplemented with a comprehensive curriculum for midwives on how to detect basic complications.

Guaranteeing oxygen to treat respiratory failure in newborns across African countries is another important step. An initiative to establish a scalable oxygen supply system in Africa is being led by the GE Foundation, partnering with the Governments of Kenya and Rwanda. However, the success of this initiative requires more than establishing an oxygen supply system; that supply will need to be met by consistent, locally driven demand to make the project sustainable. The problem is largely due to a lack of awareness—even when available, local care providers must actively campaign to raise knowledge about the presence and benefits of oxygen.

Though the achievement record in reducing child mortality and improved maternal health remains impressive across the nations below the Sahara, it’s clear there’s still work to be done. Children of sub-Saharan African nations are seven times more likely to die under the age of five than children in Europe. Hopefully, with expanded access to healthcare services many lives will no longer be cut so short.

This article was produced on behalf of GE by the Quartz marketing team and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

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