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Why Jamaica Needs to Invest in Young Lives

KINGSTON, 22 January 2008 - Concerned about the stagnation of Jamaica’s child mortality rate, UNICEF said today that the prospect of living beyond the age of five still escapes far too many Jamaican children.

Child survival takes centre stage today with the launch of UNICEF’s global report The State of the World’s Children, which details strategies to prevent more children from dying before their fifth birthday.

Jamaica’s under-five mortality rate is disturbingly stubborn. For more than a decade, it has reduced only marginally, from 33 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 31 per 1,000 in 2005, the most recent year for which data is available.

The island is not alone in this challenge: despite the halving of child mortality globally since 1990, childhood is still cut short for 9.7 million children every year. Most of these young lives can be saved by simple, affordable and readily available interventions, such as exclusive breastfeeding and immunization.

Health care is partly responsible for the sluggish decline of Jamaica’s under-five mortality rate. According to the 2005 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), only 15 per cent of children under six months are exclusively breastfed, denying thousands of children the vital nutritional benefits of breast milk.

Boys are at a distinct disadvantage – they are half as likely as girls to be breastfed exclusively, roughly 10 and 20 per cent respectively.  

The survey also revealed that thirty-five per cent of Jamaican girls and a dangerously high sixty per cent of boys with suspected pneumonia – the leading cause of child deaths globally – were not treated with life-saving antibiotics. 

Other data show that despite the increasing accessibility of treatment for HIV and a significant fall in AIDS-related children’s deaths, the disease continues to claim a considerable number of Jamaican children.

“The child mortality rate is a tell-tale sign of a country’s values and priorities,” said UNICEF Jamaica Representative Bertrand Bainvel. “If Jamaica is serious about its development, it has to promote investment in children right from birth, and sustain it during the entire period of childhood.”

Strategies for Child Survival

The State of the World’s Children report says the answer to lowering the rate of child deaths globally lies in greater investment in integrated child survival strategies, those which provide a “continuum of care” for mothers, newborns and young children.

In practice this means ensuring that women and children are given the fundamental health care services they need through integrated health care packages provided at the household, community, clinic and hospital level.

According to UNICEF, keeping more Jamaican children alive requires major strides in providing quality health care which is accessible to all children. Every barrier that prevents a sick child from being treated must be removed, a goal that has become more achievable with the recent abolishment of health fees in public health facilities for children under 18.

Access to life-saving treatment of pneumonia and HIV needs to be increased, and more attention needs to be paid to improving the quality of emergency obstetric care and the nutrition of young children, particularly by ensuring more children are exclusively breastfed up to six months.

Beyond tackling the diseases that cause childhood death, Jamaica also needs to create a culture in which parents, families, the wider society and the government begin to invest in the health and welfare of children from birth.

Worldwide, achieving Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4 – a two-thirds reduction in the under-five mortality rate between 1990 and 2015 – would bring enormous gains for children, but global progress is not yet sufficient to meet the target.



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