Woody Baird
May 6, 2008
Associated Press Newswires

Inexpensive medical care for such easily treatable diseases as pneumonia and diarrhea could save the lives of millions of children worldwide every year, particularly in poor undeveloped countries, a U.S.-based charity said in a report Tuesday.

The report by Save the Children, headquartered in Westport, Conn., said more than 200 million children under the age of 5 lack basic health care, and each year, nearly 10 million die -- most of them needlessly.

"There are 27,000 children who die every day -- over just 24 hours -- yet two-thirds of those deaths are preventable," said former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee surgeon on Save the Children's board of directors.

The top killers of those children are diarrhea and pneumonia, diseases that can be treated with cheap antibiotics and mineral mixes in fresh water costing just a few cents per dose, Frist said.

"Everybody thinks to save the world you've got to spend a lot of money, and you don't have to," he said, holding up a nickel packet of salts and sugars used to prevent dehydration from diarrhea.

The Save the Children report includes a Mothers' Index, ranking 146 countries on the best or worst places for the well-being of young children and their mothers.

Sweden tops the list as the safest country, while Niger is at the bottom. The United States ranks 27th, behind most other industrialized countries.

The index is designed to show government policy makers and private aid groups where efforts to reduce death rates for children under 5 are paying off and where help is most urgently needed.

"No mother should lose a child to diarrhea, anywhere," said Kate Conradt, a Save the Children spokeswoman who accompanied Frist to a Memphis grammar school where he talked with students about their participation in knitting baby caps for newborns in Bangladesh.

In countries at the bottom of the Mother's Index, women often deliver their babies with no help from doctors, nurses or even midwives and have little understanding of common childhood diseases, the report said.

Providing antibiotics that cost as little as 30 cents a box and teaching mothers to recognize the signs of diseases like pneumonia save lives, said Kathryn Bolles, a Save the Children fieldworker.

"It's low cost. It's simple, and this report is telling us, 'OK, let's go out and do it,'" Bolles said.

European countries, including Germany and France, were joined by New Zealand and Australia, to make up the Top 10 on the Mothers' List, while eight of the bottom 10 were in sub-Saharan Africa, where four out of five mothers are likely to lose a child during their lifetimes.

One in four children born in Niger, Afghanistan, Angola and Sierra Leone will not reach 5 years old, the report said, while in Sweden just one child in 333 dies before age 5. A girl born in Japan has a life expectancy of 86 years, while a girl born in Swaziland is unlikely to see her 30th birthday.

The report also included a list of 55 developing countries ranking their progress in providing health care for young children. The Philippines, Peru and South Africa ranked at the top of that list, with Chad, Somalia and Ethiopia at the bottom.

Wide disparities in health care also were found between the poorest and the best-off children in the developing countries.

In the Philippines and Peru, the poorest children are 3.2 times more likely to go without essential health care than their better-off counterparts. The poorest Peruvian children were 7.4 times more likely to die than youngsters from better-off families.

In more developed countries, children from poor, ethnic-minority families get less health care than white youngsters do. In the United States, American Indian and black infants are twice as likely to die as are white babies, and in Australia, Aboriginal infants die at rates three times the national average.