High UK Child Mortality Rates
May 22, 2014

High UK Child Mortality Rates

A lot of British people still believe that the “Great” in Great Britain is some kind of value descriptor and really means that the nation is somehow better, “greater,” than others. Of course, the word “great” simply refers to the larger nation comprising of individual countries. Great Britain may still be exceptionally good at some things, but when judged by other standards it is certainly not so “great.” A recent study has thrown up one area where we fall far from the standards expected. Child mortality rates here are, for a developed country, worryingly high. Too many infants are dying too young.

The report in the medical journal The Lancet comprises two studies that together examine what progress has been made towards the UN Millenium Development Goals of reducing child and maternal death rates, particularly in developing countries. They are part of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013 (GBD 2013).

By global standards, the UK’s mortality rate for the under-fives of 4.9 deaths per thousand was low. In Guinea-Bissau, for instance, the mortality rate is the highest in the world with a staggering and totally unacceptable 150 deaths or more per thousand. On the other hand, the country with the lowest rate was Singapore where there are only two deaths per thousand. The relative wealth and economic development of Guinea-Bissau and Singapore are clearly at the root of such a massive difference in child mortality. The fact that the UK, with its advanced healthcare system, spends such a huge amount of its annual budget on healthcare, coupled with the presence of so many world-leading hospitals, means that it would be expected that rates here would at least match those in countries with similar economies. That the rate is more than twice that of Singapore is bad enough, but it is its performance against its nearest thing to a “peer group,” other Western European nations, that comparison is best made.

In three key areas – deaths between zero and six days, those between 29 and 364 days, and those between the ages of one and four – Britain had worse figures than virtually every country in Western Europe, and deaths were 25 percent greater than the area average. Child mortality rates around the world have been improving for many years and continue to do so, but these improvements have slowed significantly in the UK, in spite of major advances in public health. The figures have come as a surprise and the question now being asked is what the underlying reasons behind them might be.

The main causes being suggested are poverty and the incidence of smoking during pregnancy. As a clear link between relative wealth and levels of smoking has been demonstrated in previous studies, these two factors have to be viewed together.

Levels of inequality in the UK are also among the highest in the Western world. There are more billionaires in London than any city on earth. Meanwhile nearly a million families use food banks each week. Report after report shows the wealth of the nation being concentrated in the small percentage of highest net worth individuals and families. It is a fact that mortality rates in general, and child mortality in particular, are higher in poorer families and that countries that spend more on social protection have lower rates. So the UK has a lot of work to do in reducing these unnecessary deaths and focusing attention on the disadvantaged. Let’s not forget either the appalling levels of infant mortality in the developing world where global policy and interventions are most urgently needed.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Eric Hopton is a writer, musician, artist, and photographer. He has a degree in Social Anthropology and has always been passionate about travel, having so far visited 73 countries. His music and sound work has been used in many projects around the world and can be heard on Bandcamp and Freesound, where he has contributed over 1,300 sounds under his sonic alter ego, ERH.

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