Egypt Leads in Cutting Infant Deaths

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Egypt is leading the developing world in efforts to save the lives of its children. That's according to the U.S.-based charity Save the Children, whose latest State of the World's Mothers report puts Egypt at the top of a list of 60 countries that have curbed the death rate among children — since 1990, Egypt has cut its child mortality rate by an impressive 68%.

Egypt's success has been based on implementing such basic measures as vaccination drives and promoting oral rehydration therapies, which Save the Children CEO Charles MacCormack believes can save millions of lives lost every year in the developing world. Egyptian government health policies have focused, since 1990, on ensuring that children receive their basic immunizations during their first five years of life. The Ministry of Health and Population reports that 97% of infants today are vaccinated against tuberculosis, pertussis, polio, measles, diphtheria and tetanus. Polio, once considered endemic in Egypt, is now largely absent. And campaigns against diarrhea-related diseases have been very effective, using television to reach the most remote rural areas with simple advice on combating diarrhea and dehydration. "This national campaign targeting specific causes of infant mortality was highly effective and was globally recognized," says Magdi El Sanadi, UNICEF Egypt's Health and Nutrition Project Officer.

International organizations such as UNICEF and USAID, as well as other foreign and local nonprofit organizations, have been working closely with health officials to assist in implementing the National Child Survival Program, which focuses on eradicating diarrhea-related diseases, promoting immunization and combating respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and bronchitis. And improvements in health services aimed at mothers also ensure that many more children grow up with their mothers on hand.

"Our target now is to continue with bringing down the mortality rate to reach the Millennium Development target of a 75% decline by 2015," says Esmat Mansour, head of Primary Health Care at the Ministry of Health and Population MOHP. To achieve that, Mansour says, the focus now is on preventing infant death during the first 28 days of life due to low birth weight, premature birth and inadequate infant care.

Local health activists are pleased by the findings of Save the Children Report, although they acknowledge that there is still work to be done, especially in the south of the country. "Child mortality rate remains high in rural Upper Egypt," says UNICEF's El Sanadi. Egypt's goal now is to move from the list of developing countries and measure itself with the South European nations along the opposite shore of the Mediterranean.

But not all Arab countries have reason to celebrate these latest findings. Save The Children puts Iraq at the bottom of the list, with a 150% increase in the child mortality rate since 1990. Most alarmingly, the report finds that in 2005 alone about 122,000 Iraqi children died before the age of five, about half of them perishing during their first month of life.