Early Childhood Development Week: small health steps could prevent the deaths of millions of babies

Ecd Health Update 1
Routine check ups and vaccinations are crucial for very young children (UNICEF / Vishwanathan)

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years), Safe pregnancy and birth

Theirworld’s #5for5 campaign has been calling for countries to invest in early childhood development – including nutrition, health, learning, play and protection. 90% of a child’s brain is developed by the time they are five years old, which means the early years are crucial. 

This week, in our special Early Childhood Development Week, supported by Conrad N Hilton Foundation, we take a look at each of the five key areas of nurturing care, bringing you a snapshot of why it’s important and what world leaders are doing to give children in developing countries a better chance of a prosperous life. 


It’s the most basic of all our needs. Yet the health of the world’s under-five population is devastatingly poor – with millions of young children in developing countries dying every year. 

Without substantial cash investment from world governments, the youngest and most vulnerable children in these nations will continue to suffer. Vaccinations, proper nutrition, sanitation and clean water is just a start…

What’s happening?

Nearly six million children under the age of five die every year – which translates to 15,000 deaths per day, according to the World Health Organisation. They are dying from preventable causes – including pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria and malnutrition. 

Ecd Health Update 2

It is critical for young children to access quality health care (UNICEF / Noorani)

Why is it important?

Millions of the developing world’s future population are dying, many in infancy. Newborns are the most vulnerable – apart from many being born in unsanitary conditions, they are often born malnourished and then are at risk of disease or poor sanitation. 

Again, more money and focus needs to be poured into health centres – offering more vaccinations, cleaner areas for women to give birth, health checks on pregnant women and access to clean water.

What needs to be done?

Nourishing the under-fives is a big area of focus. A UNICEF spokesman said: “Nearly half of all deaths in children under five are attributable to undernutrition, translating into the loss of about three million young lives a year.

“Undernutrition puts children at greater risk of dying from common infections, increases the frequency and severity of such infections, and contributes to delayed recovery.” 

116 million children, or 86% worldwide, get basic vaccines every year. But 19 million don’t and 60% of them live in only 10 countries – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Philippines, DRC, Iraq, Ethiopia, Ukraine and Angola.

What is being done?

Progress has been made on young children’s health, with figures showing the under-five mortality rate has almost halved since 2000. However, millions will still never reach the age of five. 

Danzen You, coordinator of the UN Inter-Agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation and senior demographer for UNICEF, said: “The good news is the number of deaths now is the lowest in history. That reduction is really remarkable. Because of the investments we made in the last decades, we really accelerated progress in saving newborns and children.” 

“More babies are being born in health facilities. A new UN- and partner-supported ‘Network for Improving Quality of Care for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health’ aims to help countries improve the quality of care in those facilities and to respect the rights and dignity of those who seek care.”

Health fact

Two regions account for almost four-fifths of newborn deaths – Southern Asia with 39% and sub-Saharan Africa with 38%.

Half of all newborn deaths happen in five countries –  India (24%), Pakistan (10%), Nigeria (9%), Democratic Republic of Congo (4%), Ethiopia (3%).

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