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China is "very encouraging" example for improving health of women, children

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by Rebekah Mintzer

UNITED NATIONS, Oct. 28 (Xinhua) -- China's progress in meeting a development goal on children's health can serve as an inspiration to other countries working towards the same objective, Dr. Renee Van de Weerdt, chief of maternal, newborn and child health at the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) told Xinhua in an interview Friday.

Van de Weerdt said that "the example of China is very encouraging because it means it can be done, even in a very big country with a very big population."

China is on track to meet the fourth Millennium Development Goal (MDG), one of the eight development targets that the international community has pledged to meet by 2015. MDG 4 requires that each country reduce its rate of mortality for children under age five to two-thirds of what it was in 1990.

According to Van de Weerdt, most deaths of children under five take place in the first month of life. After the first month, the most prevalent causes of death are pneumonia and diarrhea.

ACHIEVING THE GOAL WORLDWIDE

The international community has been doing "relatively well" in working towards achieving MDG 4, Van de Weerdt said.

The UN Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (IGME) stated in their 2011 Report on Levels and Trends in Child Mortality that the number of under-five deaths worldwide has dropped from more than 12 million in 1990 to 7.6 million in 2010.

"We really continue to see progress," Van de Weerdt said. "The number of children that die every year continues to drop so we are really pleased to see that progress. Unfortunately, the progress isn't sufficient to really be able to say that if we continue at this pace we would achieve MDG 4 by 2015."

Some regions, according to Van de Weerdt, like Latin America and parts of Asia are making more headway towards the goal than others that are currently lagging behind.

"Unfortunately in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia there is really still a lot of deaths occurring there," she said. "Also in the big countries, the countries that have big populations such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, there are still a lot of children dying."

Van de Weerdt explained that it is often the quality of the health systems in a given nation that impacts the rates of child mortality.

"In countries, in particular those affected by war or by civil unrest, these systems are not there," she said. "The health workers there are not paid, the drugs are not supplied regularly, the education of the women is often also lagging behind so that moms don't react immediately to bring a sick child to a hospital or to a health worker."

She added that poverty and malnutrition contribute to child mortality as well.

Despite all of the factors impeding the achievement of MDG 4 in some countries, Van de Weerdt ascertained that there is also good news, namely that the international community and public health workers have the tools that are necessary to help save the lives of children.

She pointed to countries, such as Niger, that have deployed community health workers that do not have medical or nursing degrees, but are trained to diagnose basic conditions and administer drugs as well as promote best practices for health.

"We've really seen in countries that push services to the children that they make very rapid progress," she said. "So we are excited about that as well, that we don't have to wait for the country to develop and have hospitals, that you can bring the services to the children even in very, very remote areas where the burden of death is even more."

In September 2010, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health with the aim of aiding progress towards the MDGs, including MDG 4. The strategy delineates a coordinated and collaborative roadmap for improving the health of women and children all over the world through better health interventions, financing, and policy.

Van de Weerdt called Ban's initiative a "great strategy." She told Xinhua that the strategy's emphasis on accountability and monitoring commitments has been helpful because "keeping track of where we're going and where more needs to be done is really good."

CHINA'S EXPERIENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS

China's efforts towards achieving MDG 4, according to the 2011 IGME report, have allowed the country to reduce its under-five mortality rate by an average of 4.9 percent per year from 1990 to 2010.

"In 1990, the reference year for MDG 4, there were more than a million kids still dying before their fifth birthday and now that number has gone down to a few hundred thousand," said Van de Weerdt.

She noted that the sheer size of China's population means that its accomplishments have had a positive effect on overall global progress towards the goal.

"If we reduce under-five in the countries with big populations such as India and China of course that has huge impact on the global level," she said. "If India and China don't progress then globally we wouldn't be able to make that progress."

As for China's future, Van de Weerdt said that the country could focus on ensuring that all areas of the country are able to benefit from improvements in maternal and child health services. She also said that newborn health should remain a priority although the rate of newborn deaths in China is "still very small compared to the rest of the world."

Furthermore, the knowledge that China has garnered in recent decades while reducing child mortality rates domestically can serve as an asset to other countries, according to Van de Weerdt.

"The fact that China now is investing in developing countries, bringing that experience along with the investment is really something that we are very excited about seeing," she said.



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