The Most Important Statistic in the World

9/13/2013 1:00:00 PM

Two of my passions are child health and statistics. So I look forward to mid-September every year, to the day when UNICEF reports how many fewer children died the previous year.

Every single year—for at least the last 50 years—the number has gone down. Every. Single. Year.

I challenge you to name something else that gets better on that kind of schedule. The stock market goes up and down. Sprinters keep getting faster, but they don’t set new records every year. The 100 meter record set in 1968 didn’t get broken until 1983.

Meanwhile, the child mortality record set in 1968 got broken in 1969. And 1970. And 1971. And so on.

Keep in mind that we’re talking about the most important statistic in the world—who is alive.

This year, the number is 6.6 million. That’s 300,000 fewer children dying than last year. To give a longer view, that’s 6 million fewer than 1990.

The report is very important from a policy perspective. It tells us which children are still dying and what they’re dying from. For example, the report shows that adolescent mothers are more likely to give birth to premature babies (and are also at a greater risk of experiencing life-threatening complications). It also indicates we still have work to do delivering two relatively new vaccines for diarrhea and pneumonia, because they’re still the leading causes of death among children. And it proves we have to pay more attention to newborn health, because as we get better at saving older children a greater proportion of mortality happens in the first month of a baby’s life.

The report will lead to important conversations about how to make sure health systems deliver all this lifesaving care in a single, integrated package that reaches all families at all stages of life.

But before we move on to the detailed conversations about how to get the number even lower next year, let’s celebrate the beautiful, simple fact that it’s lower again this year. Let’s celebrate this new world record in the most important category there is.

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