The Twelve

On average, twelve babies and little kids die every minute somewhere in the world. Twelve. Every minute.

“Yikes!” you might be thinking. “Does anyone know about this?”

Well, yes, a few folks. In 2000, the UN adopted several Millennium Development Goals: The fourth goal aimed to reduce the 1990 mortality rate among under-five children by two thirds, by 2015.

But here it is 2015 ““ as you may have noticed – and we’re not going to meet that goal. Why not? Is it because we don’t understand the problem?

Nope. Let’s go through it, point by point, in plain language.

Where do they die?

“Not here, or not so much” is the simple answer. For children born in 2002, the under-5 death rate per 1,000 varied dramatically depending on where they were born:

  • Sub-Saharan Africa? 174
  • South Asia? 97
  • Canada? 8 (for on-reserve Aboriginals)
  • Industrialized countries in general? 7
  • Canada? 5.5 (for everyone except on-reserve Aboriginals)

How do they die?

As the World Health Organization notes matter-of-factly, “More than half of these early child deaths are due to conditions that could be prevented or treated with access to simple, affordable interventions.”

Chart of causes of death before age 5.

Simple, affordable interventions! All right then!

What are we waiting for?

Well, we’re not waiting, exactly. Globally, from 1990 to 2013, we reduced the deaths per 1,000 from 90 to 46. That’s the good news.

Chart showing drop from 90/1000 to 46/1000 deaths, 1990 to 2013.
But, in some places, mortality rates have actually been rising since 1990: sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq, and countries in the former Soviet Union, for example. None of these places are beacons of democracy.

So, We Just Need to Enhance Freedom, Right?

Well, yes and no. Overall, “more freedom” correlates with “lower death rates,” but the relationship isn’t as neat as I might wish, that’s for sure. As shown in this chart, which sorts countries by their Freedom Index, some countries under-perform and some outperform – and by a lot. In this regard, India really bothers me – How can such a free country be doing so badly? – but, on the other hand, I’d love to know what Sri Lanka and Malaysia are doing right, defying what look to be the odds against them.

Chart showing death rates for children under 5, sorted by freedom index of country.

What’s next?

Ah, this is the question, isn’t it? Let’s recap:

  • On average, twelve babies and little kids die every minute. Twelve.
  • We know where they are.
  • We know how to save at least half of them, simply and affordably (simply AND affordably, dagnab it).
  • The reasons that countries vary on this measure look to be complex.

Like many things in life, if it were simple it would already have been done. And while it might not be clear exactly where to start, I think I’ll start by paying attention more than once a year.


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10 Responses to The Twelve

  1. Jim Powers says:

    I was looking for South Africa on your list and didn’t see it. Maybe because I lived there two years and noticed that when babies died, nobody seemed to care. The Mom, yes, but everybody else went about their business as if nothing had happened. BTW, they typically bury their babies in the back yard.

    Then, I didn’t see any South American countries listed. Are they so much better? And, how do they rate on the freedom index?


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Hmm. This link shows the stats colour-coded. 2015 stats for South Africa show it at 42 deaths per thousand and it’s coloured bright yellow, as is all of South America and India, so they’re in the same category. And South Africa’s freedom rating is 2 – which again puts it in the same category as India.

  2. Tom Watson says:

    The statistics are quite revealing. As is the WHO statement that more than half of the early childhood deaths could be prevented by simple, affordable interventions. Could it be that the political will to provide those simple, affordable interventions doesn’t exist?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – I expect it’s a different combination of “lacks” in every case – sometimes political will, sometimes resources, sometimes societal stability, sometimes easy physical or cultural access to the affected populations. That’s part of what makes it hard – and that makes the progress to date even more impressive.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    I had trouble getting to your page today. When I clicked on the link, the banner picture came up, but the message said “Page not found.” When I eventually got there, via a long detour through Google search, the URL was exactly what you had typed in. Don’t you just love internet gremlins?
    Anyway, I think some of the discrepancies that you identified in the chart might have something to do with the “freedom index.” The common definition of democracy does necessarily equate with health and well-being. India is technically a democracy, and Cuba is not, but Cuba has much better health and education services. I suspect that a “chaos index” would more closely correspond to infant mortality rates.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Can’t say I’m crazy about gremlins – I never know if it’s something I’m doing wrong! Maybe you’re right about the chaos/freedom thing. It makes it tough to come up with simple fixes.

  4. John Whitman says:

    Infant mortality is truly a difficult problem to solve; however, I expect world over population will be an even more difficult problem to solve. And being the old selfish person that I am, I expect I will have left this mortal coil before over population becomes a pressing concern.
    John W

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – On the over-population front, I heard this week that the Government of China completely rescinded its one-child policy (which had had significant exceptions). Apparently, they have a serious demographic mismatch between numbers of men and women (a particularly pernicious brand of gender disparity!).

  5. John Whitman says:

    Your points are true on all counts. The Chinese seem to have run afoul of the law of unintended consequences. Now I think the Chinese are just trying to build up their population base so they will have more conscripts for their army and people to settle the islands they are building in the South China Sea to further their claims on the natural resources in the area.
    The long and the short of it is from my point of view, when homo sapiens tries to influence nature, no matter how well intentioned, the results aren’t always what was expected. Put another way, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions!”

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Sometimes global affairs seem completely overwhelming – it’s hard enough just to manage our own homes and neighbourhoods.

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