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Surprising Science

Working to Combat Infant Mortality in the Third World, North America Falls Behind

It’s a tragic reality that has gone overlooked in some of the world’s poorest regions. A limited medical infrastructure and lack of education ensuring that many of the world’s children don’t make it to their fifth birthday. According to UNICEF, about 9.7 million children died in 2006 before their fifth birthday, 4/5 of those deaths occurring in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Now the western world is looking to change these trends while their own infant mortality rates rise.

Several factors contribute to these troubling statistics, most notably hunger, which has a hand in the death of one child every five seconds. But sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, the most at-risk regions in infant mortality, also suffer from sparse resources when it comes to childbirth. It’s one of the main reasons Sierra Leone’s infant mortality rate is 160.3 deaths per 1000 live births, among the planet’s worst rates.

A number of education campaigns have sought to help mothers in these regions learn how to improve their newborn’s health. This past month saw World Breastfeeding Week, an innovative program from the World Health Organization. The program looked to educate at-risk mothers about the benefits of breastfeeding, especially now that scientists have discovered that mothers who breastfeed are less likely to transmit HIV to their babies than those who used formula. Another organization, World Neighbors, send American doctors to the third world to educate locals about proper birthing techniques.

New technologies are also contributing to the fight against Third-World infant mortality. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with the World Bank and a British fertilizer manufacturer to address zinc deficiency among children, particularly in Africa, South America, and Asia. Stanford’s has recently designed the Embrace, a no-frills $25 baby incubator that uses materials that can be heated in boiling water. This affordable incubator alternative could potentially help prolong the lives of infants across the globe.

But while the Western world has worked to address this problem around the world, they’ve neglected the very same problem at home. In Canada, UNICEF has expressed concerns about the infant mortality rate in certain indigenous Inuit communities reaching third-world levels. Perhaps most shocking has been recent trends in American infant mortality. Statistics last summer showed that, of the world’s wealthiest nations, the United States had the highest mortality rate, with North Memphis having a rate worse than many third-world countries. Now that we’ve established the kind of technology and education needed to address the problem, perhaps it’s time for westerners to look in their own backyard.


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