Every child has the right to survive and thrive.
Tremendous progress in child and maternal health has been achieved over the past decades. More infants today live to celebrate their fifth birthday, while fewer women lose their lives during pregnancy and childbirth.
But millions of women and children are still dying from causes that can be prevented with quality health care and strong health systems. Communicable and non-communicable diseases, mental health conditions, injuries, malnutrition, environmental hazards: All pose threats to children worldwide. Still, within and among countries, stark inequities persist when it comes to accessing live-saving care.
Women and children living in poverty, with a disability, or in an emergency setting are especially likely to be cut off from services they need to survive and thrive. And the risk of disease and malnutrition soars during conflict, natural disaster and other crises.
Through it all, demographic changes threaten to strain global health systems. Children in 2030 will live in a world that is older and more urban. With fertility rates dropping and life expectancies rising, more children and elderly people will be dependent on those in the workforce. At the same time, income growth will shift young people into wealthier, but not necessarily healthier, environments. Public health emergencies and those stemming from environmental causes are also expected to become more frequent.
Topics in health
Newborns and mothers are still dying in appalling numbers – mostly from preventable or treatable causes, such as infectious diseases and complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Uneven access to affordable, high-quality health care and services impedes many countries from improving maternal and newborn survival and reducing stillbirths.
Vaccines are among the greatest advances in global health and development. For over two centuries, vaccines have safely reduced the scourge of diseases like polio, measles and smallpox, helping children grow up healthy and happy. They save more than five lives every minute – preventing up to three million deaths a year.
Malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV and tuberculosis are preventable and treatable. But they are still killing children in large numbers. Children under 5 are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases.
In the global effort to end HIV and AIDS, children and adolescents continue to fall behind. New cases of infection still occur at birth, during breastfeeding and in adolescence, and not enough children and adolescents living with HIV have access to testing and life-saving treatment.
Non-communicable diseases claim some 41 million lives every year: That’s about 70 per cent of all global deaths. While these diseases – including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and preventable cancers – tend to manifest in adulthood, many have their origins in behaviours adopted during childhood and adolescence. Risk factors for these diseases are often preventable.
To reach their full potential, children need high-quality health care and services, especially in life’s early moments. The time between pregnancy and age 3, when the brain is most susceptible to environmental influences, is critical for a child’s growth and development. But millions of children don't receive the nurturing care they need to survive and thrive.
While adolescents have a better chance of improving their health now more than ever, an estimated 1.2 million still die each year – mostly from preventable causes. Many lack access to the essential information, quality services and protective environments they need to stay healthy and well.
Good nutrition is the bedrock of child survival and development. Well-nourished children are better able to grow, learn, play and participate in their communities. They are also more resilient in the face of crisis. Yet, many children are not getting the nutrition they need.
Climate change and environmental degradation threaten to reverse progress on child health and survival. Children worldwide face a host of environmental hazards, like polluted air, water and food; exposure to toxic chemicals; unsafe infrastructure; and threats related to climate change.
Unintentional injuries – such as road traffic crashes, drowning, falls, burns and poisonings – constitute major threats to children globally. For those between the ages of 5 and 19, road traffic injuries represent a leading cause of death. Drowning is another top killer, ranking among the ten leading causes of death for children and adolescents in every region of the world. Despite the alarming statistics, road and water safety is often overlooked in public health policies.
Children need strong, resilient and inclusive health systems. But millions, especially in low- and middle-income countries, don't have access to quality health care and services. In some places, health facilities are too far or expensive to reach. In others, facilities lack the medical supplies or trained personnel necessary to deliver basic and essential care.
During conflicts, natural disasters and other emergencies, children’s health needs can be neglected to devastating effect. Newborns, children, and mothers are often cut off from essential care, including life-saving medicines and supplies. The risk of disease and malnutrition soars. And adolescents become more vulnerable to sexual violence.
What we do
Despite the scale of the challenge, solutions are in sight. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals requires a global shift from treating diseases to strengthening health systems so that all children and women of reproductive age have access to affordable, quality health care.
UNICEF works around the world – including in some of the hardest-to-reach places – to help children grow up healthy and happy. Through public and private partnerships at the global, national and community levels, we focus on:
UNICEF works to end preventable maternal, newborn and child deaths and stillbirths by scaling up essential maternal and newborn care, sustaining immunization programmes, and supporting preventive, promotive and curative services for pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and other child health conditions.
UNICEF is committed to helping children and adolescents build a solid foundation for adulthood. We support national health plans on adolescent health and well-being, improve age-specific health services, and help countries combat non-communicable diseases, improve mental health, prevent injuries and better support children with developmental delays and disabilities.
UNICEF supports primary health care, especially at the community level, to help achieve universal health coverage. We work to strengthen health systems to deliver integrated services for children, adolescents and women of reproductive age – focusing on health, nutrition, early childhood development, HIV and AIDS, and WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene). Our work also promotes overall health and well-being by focusing on education, child protection and social inclusion.
UNICEF tackles health challenges in places affected by conflicts, natural disasters, migration, urbanization, and political and economic instability, by supporting direct responses to emergencies and helping to develop resilient health systems that can withstand crises.