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Children: Infant Mortality

Volume 699: debated on Monday 3 March 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What is their response to the United Nations Children’s Fund’s (UNICEF) latest The State of the World’s Children report, in particular its conclusion that west Africa is the only region in the world showing no progress on reaching the millennium development goal to reduce the mortality level of under-fives by two-thirds by 2015.

My Lords, we welcome the annual The State of the World’s Children report by UNICEF. While showing that good progress has been made in some countries, it highlights the need for a concentrated push to accelerate progress in west Africa and parts of Asia to cut child deaths. That is why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has called for 2008 to be a year of action towards meeting the millennium development goals.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Are we funding the International Baby Food Action Network to promote immediate and continuous breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life as the most effective and cost-effective means of reducing infant mortality in the first year of a child’s life? Given that 3 million children a year are reported to die from the forgotten killer, pneumococcal disease, what are the Government doing to complement the work of the GAVI Alliance’s PneumoADIP in funding mechanisms and delivery systems in the 22 west African countries that are identified as the highest priority in the “countdown to 2014” list?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct to say that feeding in the first months of life is critical. However, we are not funding the group to which he referred because it is not UK-based and therefore not eligible for DfID’s funding window for such purposes. As he is aware, behind pneumococcal disease lies a range of childhood diseases, many of which go back to the basic roots of public health and nutrition. Not only are we supporting the fight against the specific disease, but we are putting a huge proportion of our funding behind trying to tackle those root factors of basic health and good food.

My Lords, declaring an interest as a trustee of UNICEF UK, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware of a recent article in the Lancet that says that malnutrition is responsible for about 35 per cent of the deaths of under-fives? DfID’s excellent annual report in response to the International Development Act does not isolate DfID’s spending on malnutrition. Can my noble friend give me any information on that?

My Lords, I will get back to my noble friend with the specific detail of our spending on malnutrition. About half our spending goes into the MDG areas of nutrition, public health and basic education because they are so critical to children’s welfare.

My Lords, is not one of the world’s biggest tragedies the recruitment of child soldiers in the northern region of Sri Lanka? UNICEF calculates that, since 2002, 5,700 have been so recruited, and recruitment continues every day. Should not the world community put extensive pressure on Prabhakaran and the Tamil Tigers to stop this ghastly dimension, whatever their views may be on having an independent nation?

My Lords, the Government are deeply opposed to the use of child soldiers in all situations. We have expressed our support for the under-secretary-general for children in armed conflict in her work in northern Sri Lanka, Uganda and other parts of the world where that phenomenon sadly still exists.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that some 10 million children die under the age of five every year? Will he spell out to the House the principal diseases that claim their lives? Will he also confirm that in sub-Saharan Africa 160 out of 1,000 children under the age of five die each year? Would he care to tell the House what he thinks the links are between poverty and conflict that have led to the millennium development goals being pushed back to 2045 instead of 2015, when we had hoped to see the number of deaths of young children reduced by two-thirds?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that nearly 10 million children a year die before the age of five. Almost 40 per cent of those die in the first few days of life because their condition is related to that of their mother. Therefore, we have to tackle maternal health in order additionally to solve the problem of the health of under-fives. Beyond that group, the core issues are malnutrition, malaria and dirty water. If a set of public health and nutrition interventions could be made at very low cost, the situation would dramatically change. On the postponement of the date for achieving the MDGs, if we can all support the intention of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to make this a year of emergency action to get the world back on track to achieve the millennium development goals, I do not think that we will have to wait until 2045.

My Lords, is not one of the problems of maternal health the fact that people are having far too many children? They are marrying too young, before they reach their teens, and are forced to have children. That is putting pressure on maternal services. Will the Government target aid and contraceptive services at Governments who co-operate in trying to reduce fertility levels, from seven children in Niger, where I was recently, to a more sustainable level?

My Lords, my noble friend is correct. We believe that about 200 million couples do not have access to effective contraception. That leads to 80 million unintended pregnancies every year. Providing choice for them in family planning assistance is a critical goal for us. Every $1 million invested in family planning avoids 360,000 unwanted pregnancies and 150,000 induced abortions and saves the lives of 800 mothers and 11,000 infants. We cannot get better value for $1 million.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has a distinguished record of training and educating people from west Africa so that they can go back to help to improve the welfare of mothers and children. How will the new immigration points scheme, which restricts people coming from overseas to the UK, affect educating those from west Africa to take up posts after training in the UK?

My Lords, I am tempted to say that I have no idea. I shall look into it. The noble Lord, Lord Crisp, has been doing a lot of work on how we can use training and other means to support the development of healthcare professionals in Africa and elsewhere.

My Lords, when the clock says 8, we are in the ninth minute. The difficulty, if we go on, is that other Questions do not get their full time.