What’s in a number?

May 14, 2010


Numbers.  Cold, desensitized, scientific.

While they are critical for tracking disease and measuring impact in global health, what helps us remember each number represents a life? It's easy to spout statistics—harder to step back and remember the faces and families they represent.

 According to World Health Statistics 2010, published this week by the World Health Organization (WHO), the new number is 8.8 million. An estimated 8.8 million children under age five died in 2008—a major reduction from the 10.7 million annual child deaths in 2000.

But strip these statistics, and imagine the 8.8 million faces that will never again smile at their mother's touch, that will never get to attend school and feel the power of their own minds expanding. The vast majority - roughly 6 million - of those lives were lost due to infectious diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, and malaria—diseases for which solutions exist; deaths that could have been prevented. To be sure, celebration of progress is warranted. At the same time, we mustn't forget all that is left to be done.

The good news is that we can get even closer to the global goal of slashing child deaths by half. We can save more children's lives today by increasing awareness of the threat of resilient infectious diseases like diarrhea, raising our voices to call for commitments from governments and donors to help make simple, proven, and lifesaving interventions available to every child who needs them.

By making an impact in diarrheal deaths, we can make a major impact in childhood mortality writ large. Diarrheal disease doesn't have to be the second leading killer of children. Safe, clean water, exclusive breastfeeding, regular hand washing with soap, improved sanitation and vaccines such as those preventing rotavirus can help prevent the 1.5 million child deaths caused by diarrheal disease each year. Exclusive breastfeeding and continued optimal feeding, oral rehydration therapy, and zinc can save children's lives when they do become infected.

Successfully controlling diarrheal disease will require a comprehensive approach including both prevention and treatment interventions because diarrhea has many different causes and infections respond differently to each intervention. Without awareness of and access to these simple tools,about 3,660 children die each day - which simply means that families will continue to lose sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren.

8.8 million child deaths each year is a number we can't afford to ignore.  Help us continue the progressand make your voice count by joining the global effort and spreading the world about the proven prevention and treatment interventions available today to control diarrheal disease.