Pre-Collegiate Global Health Review
Our Dying Youth
Janvi Srivastava, BASIS Scottsdale, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
14,000 children under the age of 5 die everyday (UNICEF, 2021). This is the equivalent of five 9/11’s, two Revolutionary Wars, or seven Pearl Harbor bombings. And yet, we must ask ourselves: when was the last time we heard about these everyday tragedies in the news? Why do we continue to ignore the deaths of our planet’s most vulnerable populations?
Most child and infant deaths are caused by diseases that are entirely preventable through simple, low-cost measures. For example, malaria is a devastating disease in many tropical regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa and India, especially to young children. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, “every 2 minutes a child dies of malaria” (WHO, 2019). However, malaria can be easily prevented and treated with inexpensive measures, such as the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets or the administration of antimalarial drugs (WHO, 2021). Similarly, both pneumonia and diarrhea can also be treated with inexpensive, easily-implemented strategies, such as antibiotic treatments or with oral rehydration solutions. Another large contributor to infant mortality rates are birth defects (NHLBI, 2020). These defects can range from structural (such as cleft lip or club foot) to cognitive (such as Down Syndrome) (CDC, 2021). Birth defects are not entirely preventable. However, there are many measures pregnant mothers can take to mitigate the risk of these defects, such as consuming enough folic acid, receiving appropriate prenatal care, and avoiding drugs and alcohol.
Even with these simple measures, daunting disparities between different countries and regions still persist. Horrifically, high infant and child mortality rates are present in certain areas of the world to this day. In fact, about 50% of under-5 deaths in the world occur in just six developing countries: India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia (UNICEF, 2021). The majority of these deaths can be attributed to pneumonia, diarrhea, and other similar diseases. However, developing countries are not the only ones with early deaths. The United States also experiences child and infant mortality. In fact, the U.S.'s infant mortality rate is about 1.5 times higher than the average of other high-income countries (also known as the OECD average) (United Health Foundation, 2018). When this statistic is broken down based on race, the infant mortality rate of non-Hispanic white infants is about the same as the OECD average. Consequently, the majority of this mortality gap between the U.S. and other developed countries is due to the disproportionately high mortality rate amongst non-Hispanic black infants. According to the CDC, non-Hispanic black infants have a mortality rate that is approximately double that of non-Hispanic white infants. The statistics are clear: white Americans are much less likely to lose a child soon after birth than black Americans. But why?
The main contributor to disparities in infant mortality rates are the effects of a lifetime of systemic racism on black women. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement, redlining – the denial of financial services such as loans based on where one lives – was commonly used in the U.S. housing system to prevent African-Americans from buying homes in certain areas. Decades later, African-Americans are still much more likely to live in places with harmful toxins and pollutants, such as near coal plants or factories (Nardone et al., 2020). These environmental factors can harm the health of the mother during pregnancy, increasing chances of preterm birth, pregnancy complications, or birth defects in the infant. Furthermore, Black women consistently report higher levels of mental health issues during pregnancy than women of other races. This is linked to the fact that mental healthcare services often do not take the unique problems that people of color face into account, such as discrimination and racism in the workplace or personal life. These mental health issues can lead to serious physical health problems, such as obesity or high blood pressure, which can also increase the risk of various pregnancy complications.
High infant and child mortality affects the entire world. The effects of centuries of racist, segregational laws continue to harm black Americans in startling ways. Additionally, developing countries around the world still face unimaginably high death tolls among their youngest. While affluent countries can do their part to aid less developed countries lower their infant and child mortality rates by passing policy for financial aid, it would also be beneficial for the general public to become more aware of these problems and do their part for the overall health of our planet’s children.
Baby’s hand. (2011, January 8). [Photograph]. https://www.flickr.com/photos/29450586@N04/5346737067
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, November 5). What are Birth Defects? | CDC. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/birthdefects/facts.html
United Health Foundation. (2018). America’s Health Rankings: 2018 Annual Report. https://www.americashealthrankings.org/learn/reports/2018-annual-report/findings-international-comparison
Nardone, A., Casey, J. A., Morello-Frosch, R., Mujahid, M., Balmes, J. R., & Thakur, N. (2020). Associations between historical residential redlining and current age-adjusted rates of emergency department visits due to asthma across eight cities in California: an ecological study. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(1), e24–e31. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(19)30241-4
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Pneumonia. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/pneumonia
UNICEF. (2021, October 25). Child Mortality. UNICEF DATA. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://data.unicef.org/topic/child-survival/under-five-mortality/
World Health Organization. (2019, June 28). Malaria. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.who.int/news-room/facts-in-pictures/detail/malaria
World Health Organization. (2021, October 28). Malaria. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malaria