Such a significant decline is largely thanks to free universal health care for children and pregnant women, as well as to a rise in donor funding for health-related services. This has allowed Niger to achieve better progress than many of its neighbours towards meeting its Millennium Development goal to cut child mortality by two-thirds before 2015.
According to the results of a research study published in the Lancet, the decrease in deaths among young children in Niger can be attributed to the provision of insecticide-treated bed nets and improved nutrition, particularly among children less than two where a reduction in stunting and wasting has been recorded. Other vital elements included the provision of vitamin A supplements and better treatment of illnesses such as diarrhoea, malaria and childhood pneumonia. A rise in vaccinations has also helped survival rates. Speaking to the news agency IRIN, one of the study’s authors confirmed that the significant decline in child mortality demonstrated the success of “the strategy implemented by the government and its partners”.
However, there is still much work to do. Stunting and malnourishment are still a huge problem. According to the UN’s child agency UNICEF, Niger has the highest number of malnourished children in the Sahel region currently, with over 300,000 youngsters at risk this year.
Health experts also point to the many unnecessary deaths in the neonatal period (the first 28 days) of a child’s life. Niger has the highest fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa (women have an average of seven children), but the country suffers from a huge shortage of qualified medical personnel such as midwives. This means that only around one in ten Nigerien women have a skilled birth attendant during childbirth. The National Health Development Plan recognises that expanding emergency obstetric and newborn care is a priority. Under the plan, health officials aim to eradicate traditional birthing practices which may adversely affect a women’s health and create more skilled birth attendants. The country wants to move towards having at least 60% of births attended by a skilled professional.
But overall, there is a positive picture for improvements in child health. UNICEF’s deputy representative in Niger confirmed that many new health centres have been built across the country. This means that the ratio of health centre to population has dropped from 30,000:1 to 5,000 to 1. Speaking to IRIN, he said this increase has facilitated the availability of free medical care for children and while Niger was often associated with pictures of malnourished children, the country’s health programme “has been a success story”.