In recent weeks we've seen just how devastating natural disasters can be. Lives that at one moment continued as they had for many years, in the next moment were irreversibly altered as a tsunami, an earthquake and continuing floods wreaked havoc in South East Asia and the Pacific region.
While these events are tragic and overwhelming in their destruction, other more subtle killers carry out their own devastation far away from our television screens and newsprint. But they leave a death toll far in excess of what we have recently seen.
In mid-September a joint group from UNICEF, the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and the United Nations Population Division, released the mortality figures for 2008 of children under five. The central statistic was that last year 65 children out of every thousand died before the age of five. That translates to 8.8 million children.
Although 8.8 million children is an enormous figure, there is some consolation in the knowledge that there could have been many more. In 1990, for example, the global child mortality rate was 90 deaths per 1000 live births or 12.5 million children. Comparing the two figures we see that today 10,000 fewer children die every day than did nearly 20 years ago. Still, it is frustrating to know how easily preventable most of those 8.8 million deaths were.
Reducing child mortality is one of eight Millennium Development Goals established by the United Nations as a benchmark for progress across specific humanitarian areas.
For child mortality, the goal is to reduce 1990's rate by two thirds by 2015. The reduction currently sits at 28 per cent and while seemingly a long way off target, the rate has continually decreased and is now reducing rapidly.
But another Millennium Development Goal, the eradication of hunger, has become a possible harbinger for a tragic future. Hunger, like child mortality, was also on a continuing decline. Not now. In 2008, it reversed for the first time since 1990. Current estimates suggest that 100 million people have been forced back into poverty, and subsequently hunger, as a direct result of rising food and fuel prices and the onset of the global financial crisis.
While the child mortality figures are believed to be the lowest in world history, it is feared that next year's figures will tell a horrifying story. Food and fuel prices have backed off but remain high, and the full impact of the global financial crisis is yet to be felt. With poverty and health so inextricably linked, there are obvious grounds for fear.
But amidst the speculation, simple, low-cost measures like vaccines, insecticide-treated mosquito nets and Vitamin A supplementation continue to show just how easily preventable many, if not most, child deaths can be.
Countries like Malawi are a perfect example. In 1990, Malawi had an extremely high under five child mortality rate of 225 deaths per 1000 live births. That rate has now dropped significantly to 100 per 1000.
Correlative to those figures is the knowledge that in 2000 only three per cent of Malawi's children aged under five slept under a mosquito net — a key means of preventing malaria. By 2006 that had increased to 25 per cent. With limited resources, Malawi focused on a simple intervention that saved countless children's lives.
As expected, Australia's under five child mortality rate is among the lowest in the world at 5.8 deaths per 1000 live births (Save the Children figures show the indigenous rate at 12.5 deaths for every 1000 live births), but our neighbours, although making significant gains, still have extraordinarily high death rates for children under five.
East Timor, having already halved its 1990 child mortality rate, still has a mortality rate of 92.9 deaths per 1000 live births — the highest rate within the region and similar to that of Pakistan and Myanmar.
Papua New Guinea at 69.2 deaths per thousand and Indonesia at 40.5 per thousand have also significantly reduced their child mortality rate with a 24.2 per cent and 52.9 per cent decrease respectively.
But while great gains are being made, it is still inconceivable that a child can die of hunger in a world so full of waste. That a child can die from a lack of low cost preventable measures like vaccinations that cost mere cents or mosquito nets that cost a few dollars, is unconscionable.
Climate change notwithstanding, natural disasters are largely out of people's control. But when it comes to child mortality, the power exists to effect great change. These recent figures should therefore be seen as a milestone along the road to ending preventable child deaths. With the right approach, it could be a short road.
Matthew Smeal is the Media Manager at UNICEF Australia. He is a former photojournalist and has written previously about children's issues in Uganda, Kenya and Cambodia. Photo: An infant is weighed as part of a routine medical examination at
the main hospital in the coastal town of Vilanculos in Inhambanhe
Province, Mozambique, © UNICEF/NYHQ2007-0215/Thierry Delvigne-Jean.