Latest child mortality estimates reveal world remains off track to meeting Sustainable Development Goals

NEW YORK – The world remains significantly off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on ending the preventable deaths of newborns and children under five, according to the latest estimates released by the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME) today.

According to the report, more than 50 countries will not meet the under-five mortality target by 2030, and more than 60 countries will miss the neonatal mortality target without immediate action. The SDGs call for an end to preventable deaths of newborns and children under age 5, with all countries aiming to have a neonatal mortality rate of 12 or fewer deaths per 1,000 live births, and an under-five mortality rate of 25 or fewer deaths per 1,000 live births, by 2030.

The report states that more than 5 million children died before their fifth birthday in 2020 alone, along with 2.2 million children and youth aged 5 to 24.

“We are still losing too many young lives from largely preventable causes, often because of weak and underfunded health systems which have faced enormous pressure over the pandemic. And the burden of these deaths is not carried equally around the world. Children in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia continue to face the highest risk of death in the world, and to bear the brunt of this child mortality burden,” said Mark Hereward, UNICEF’s Associate Director on Data and Analytics. “If we are going to achieve the child mortality SDGs in all countries, we must redouble efforts to ensure access to effective and high-quality care along with the continued expansion of coverage of life-saving interventions.”

The UN IGME report also said that recent and reliable data on child, adolescent and youth mortality remains unavailable for most countries of the world, particularly for low-income countries, and the COVID-19 pandemic has posed additional challenges to improving data availability and quality. Only about 60 countries, mainly high-income, have a well-functioning Civil Registration and Vital Statistics System which produces timely, high-quality mortality data.

In low- and middle-income countries, huge data gaps remain – two thirds (97 out of 135 countries) have had no reliable mortality data in the past 3 years. Likewise, the COVID-19 pandemic posed more challenges to data collection and highlighted the urgent need to fill data gaps.

“Countries must invest in quality health services, nutrition, and other life-saving interventions for women and children to ensure the hard-won gains in combating child mortality are not lost and to meet the SDGs,” said Feng Zhao, Practice Manager for the Health, Nutrition and Population Global Practice of the World Bank. “The World Bank continues to be committed to helping low- and middle- income countries improve health outcomes for women and children and accelerate reductions in child mortality, including through partnerships like the Global Financing Facility (GFF).”

The UN IGME analyzed COVID-19-related excess mortality based on mortality data the group received from over 80 countries, half of which are low- or middle-income countries. Following analysis of these data and recommendations from its Technical Advisory Group, the UN IGME has not adjusted the 2020 rate for COVID-19-related mortality. However, as more good-quality data become available, further monitoring is needed for a more complete picture of child, adolescent and youth mortality, as well as the relevant contributing factors. Future investments in the COVID-19 response and in global health should strengthen all elements of global healthcare infrastructure, including leaving a lasting impact on data and primary health systems to help end preventable child deaths.

“Intensified efforts are needed to deliver quality health care services for all children and adolescents, which also means collecting the necessary data to ensure that their physical, developmental and emotional needs are being met throughout their life,” said Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organization (WHO). “Investing in children is one of the most important things a society can do to build a better future.”

The report warns that because the data remains poor, outcomes for children and adolescents in 2021 and beyond remain unknown. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic may affect child mortality differently by age group and socioeconomic status. Timely and accurate data and close monitoring will be needed to understand the long-term impact of COVID-19.