Globally, infant fatalities drop, income disparity widens

Ryan Lenora BrownThe Christian Science Monitor

At first glance, the tumbling rate of infant mortality around the world seems like a sweeping public health success. Since 1990, the number of children under five who die each year has fallen 40 percent – even as the world’s population has risen by more than a billion.

But those numbers obscure another story: In almost every country, healthcare for the rich is getting better and better, while for many of the world’s poorest, it has hardly changed, according to a report released today by Save the Children, an international nongovernmental organization.

“No longer is the question really one of rich countries and poor countries,” says Save the Children CEO Carolyn Miles. “Now it’s about reaching the poor kids wherever they are."

In an analysis of 50 developing countries, Save the Children found that babies born to parents in the poorest fifth of the population died 40 percent more often than those in the richest fifth.

And in some countries, the gap is even more dramatic.

In Bolivia, for instance, babies born to poor mothers die three times as often as those born to rich mothers. In India, which has the highest number of newborn deaths annually in the world (876,000), a poor baby is twice as likely to die in infancy as a rich one.

In many ways, the yawning gap in healthcare access for mothers and babies is a classic story of how globalization has cleaved the world along new lines. As medical technology has spread rapidly around the world, the well-off in even the poorest of countries now visit hospitals, seek advice from trained medical professionals, and have access to medicine and nutrition that dramatically reduce health risks for their children.

At the same time, however, millions of women in rural, remote, and impoverished areas of those same countries continue to give birth at home and never come into contact with the medical system. Their babies die frequently from easily treatable infections and other medical conditions, notably complications from premature birth, the report states.

“There’s almost this feeling that, well, of course a certain number of babies in the developing world, particularly those born prematurely, are going to die,” Ms. Miles says. “But that doesn’t have to be the case.”

But the problem is not limited to the developing world. Among developed countries, the United States – which has the highest rate of income inequality in the Western world – also has the largest number of children who die on the day of their birth.

More than 11,000 babies die the same day they are born the US each year, 50 percent more than in all the other industrialized nations combined.

Besides looking at infant mortality, Save the Children’s “State of the World’s Mothers” report also ranks the world’s best – and worst – places to be a mother, using a metric based on education, income, women’s political representation, and the chances a mother and her baby will survive. This year, Finland ranked first, and the Democratic Republic of Congo last. The United States was 30th, below all of Western Europe, as well as Canada, Israel, Australia, Singapore, and several Eastern European nations.