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Ending preventable child deaths: How Britain can lead the way

Guest Blog: Kirtbir Chahal, UNICEF UK

November 20th, 2019 marked the 30th anniversary for the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights treaty in history. Over the last 30 years, the global community has made great strides in upholding the rights of children, including the right of every child to survive and thrive. In 2000, the Millennium and Development Goals set clear indicators for the world to make and monitor progress on improving children’s health and well-being, and the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 ushered in a sense of urgency along with new calls to action: countries must join together to tackle stalling progress on health, including on the agenda of ending preventable deaths of children by 2030 (SDG 3.2).

Without accelerated action, 52 million children under five will die by 2030, mostly from preventable causes. It’s an injustice that we can’t stand by and ignore. Not least because we have the tools, knowledge and power to change this.


Last year, the UK’s Secretary of State for International Development, Alok Sharma made a public commitment to accelerate the UK’s efforts to end preventable deaths of mothers, newborn babies and children by 2030. This is a welcome announcement, and we look forward to consulting with the government as it determines how this will be done. How can DFID best leverage their resources to catalyse change and save lives?

Unicef UK’s new report, “Ending preventable child deaths: How Britain can lead the way” offers some of the answers, showing how the UK can build on its long history of advancing progress in child health.

The next two years present a number of critical opportunities for the UK Government to deliver on this commitment. By utilising key global summits and pledging moments to influence and secure ambitious commitments from major international actors, and by allocating its own resources to child health, the UK can lead the world in ending preventable deaths of children by 2030.


The world has seen unparalleled success in reducing child deaths, with the number of children who die before their fifth birthday falling by half. But considerable health challenges are hindering this progress, including:

– Limited access to quality primary health care, resulting in the deaths of 7000 newborns every day

– Unequal access to vaccines, as 1.5 million children under five die from vaccine preventable diseases every year

– Pneumonia,the leading cause of deaths among children under five

– Malnutrition, which affects one in three children globally

– Diarrhoea,the fifth leading cause of death among children under five, and unsafe WASH accounting for two-thirds of diarrhoeal disease

Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South Asia bear the burden of the highest number of child deaths, and many of these deaths are also concentrated in the most marginalised communities, with the poorest children twice as likely to die before the age of five compared to children in wealthy households.


At least half of the world’s population do not have full coverage of essential health services, and many health systems fail to deliver life-saving interventions to the poorest children and families, but strong primary health care systems are the basis upon which we can drive progress for ending preventable deaths of children.

Infectious diseases like pneumonia can be controlled and treated by health workers if they are appropriately trained and have access to affordable and effective treatments such as antibiotics. Vaccines both use and strengthen PHC systems by facilitating contact between households and health systems, and require health delivery systems such as supply chains and data records to be kept up to date. Many nutrition interventions such as nutrition counselling and support for exclusive breastfeeding also rely on PHC systems for successful delivery. PHC centres with basic WASH facilities can offer quality care to children in danger of diarrhoeal disease as well as providing prevention information and education.

Strengthening PHC is the most cost-effective way to deliver services, prevent illness, promote overall well-being, and meet SDG 3.2 by 2030.


The next two years present unique and unparalleled opportunities to bring the world together to end preventable deaths of children under five. The UK must use these key moments to reassert its leading role in international development and deliver on its promise to change the lives of children everywhere.

– January 2020: Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia, Barcelona 

A critical moment for revitalising global action to end all childhood pneumonia deaths by 2025 – the UK Minister for International Development should lead global action by enshrining pneumonia reduction as a key success indicator in DFID’s health systems strengthening support to high burden countries.

– June 2020: GAVI Replenishment, London

As the host country, the UK Government should at a minimum, maintain its current levels of funding to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, and galvanise action among countries and donors to ensure GAVI is fully funded in order to meet its goal of vaccinating an additional 300 million children between 2021-25.

– Winter 2020: Nutrition for Growth Summit, Tokyo 

The UK Government should make an ambitious financial pledge to tackle all forms of malnutrition and launch a new strategy to support better integration of nutrition services with primary health care systems.

– Summer 2021: G7, UK

A key moment for the UK Government to drive global commitment towards strengthening primary health care (PHC) and ensuring both PHC and child health are central pillars of its G7 presidency.

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53 countries are expected to miss the SDG for ending preventable deaths of children. With 10 years to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, we need to accelerate progress on child health and see ambitious action from all governments, especially the UK.

The UK’s ambition to Leave No One Behind can only be realised through a renewed focus on child health that addresses inequities in health outcomes and strengthens health systems. As Britain begins to re-define its place on the international stage, it should remember its unique position as a leader in global health: The UK can use its diplomatic leverage to convene world leaders and mobilise action on child health, especially as host of key events including the GAVI replenishment in 2020 and the G7 in 2021.  In doing so, the UK Government can transition this story from the pain of 15,000 children dying every day, towards one of the transformative power of UK Aid.

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