Global child mortality: it is hard to overestimate both, the immensity of the tragedy and the progress the world has made

Single events – such as plane crashes – always make the headlines. Daily tragedies – even the worst ones like the deaths of thousands of children – never make the headlines.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that in 1990 more than 12 million children died.

Let's put this in perspective: A large jumbo jet can carry up to 620 guests.1 The number of child deaths in 1990 is therefore the same as 53 crashes of jumbo jets, with only children on board, every single day.

While every plane crash makes the headlines every time and 53 plane crashes in a single day would certainly be headlines everywhere we have not seen a single headline regarding child mortality even once. Expressing the unseen daily cruelty of child death in the number of plane crashes gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy that the world is trying to solve.

Here at we present the empirical evidence on global development. For this it is firstly key to have a sense of the scale of the issues of global development – 53 daily jumbo jet crashes at the time when today's 27-year olds were born – and secondly you need a long run perspective. This is because global development often happens slowly. Let's turn to this historical perspective.

A ten-fold decrease of child mortality

This chart shows the share of children surviving the first five years of their lives. It goes back far in time to the year 1800. Health conditions in the time of our ancestors were such that more than 4 out of 10 newborns died before their fifth birthday. The historical estimates further suggest that it was the entire world that lived in poor conditions: there was relatively little variation between different world regions and even in the best off countries in 1800 every third child perished.

Children frequently dying was a reality for all families for a very long time. For millennia our ancestors lived in poor health and most had short lives.

The chart shows that this finally began to improve in the 20th century, as humanity achieved broad improvements in health and living conditions. In the first half of the 1900s the global child mortality rate fell by more than half, and still was very high: Every fifth child born in 1960 died before 1965.

Fortunately, in recent decades – in our lifetimes – we have seen rapid progress. In 2015 global child mortality fell to 4.3% – 10-fold lower than two centuries ago.

One reason why we do not see progress is that we are unaware of how bad the past was. You have to take this long perspective to see the progress that we have achieved.

Click to open interactive version

Child mortality declined in all countries

The decline in global child mortality is not just due to improvements in a few well-off developed regions. In fact, every single country achieved to reduce child mortality. This is what the chart below shows. Hover over the lines with your mouse cursor and you can see the decline of child mortality in each country.

Yet, even after decades of unprecedented global progress there are still stark divides. The difference between the worst-off countries and the countries with the lowest mortality –Luxembourg with 0.2% – show what is possible and make clear that still a lot of work has to be done.

This work is already underway. The biggest recent improvements were achieved in the countries that were worst off in the 1950s. The less healthy countries are catching up and the inequality in health across the world today is substantially lower than a few decades ago.

By the way, in each country the decline in child mortality was followed by a decline in fertility which brought rapid population growth to an end – with our colleagues at kurzgesagt we recently made a short video about this.

Click to open interactive version

27 fewer plane crashes every single day

The achievement that this post highlighted is that child mortality decreased substantially. What does this mean for the absolute number of child deaths that we discussed above?

Until 2015, the year for which we have the latest data, the number of child deaths declined from over 12 million in 1990 to 5.8 million. Notably, this decline by 6.3 million child deaths happened despite the absolute number of births increasing slightly over the same period.

The decline by 6.3 million fewer deaths means that compared with 1990 there are 17,258 fewer child deaths every single day.

We were also surprised to see the scale of the reduction of child mortality when broken down like this. Over a period of 25 years, in which the number of births had slightly increased, the world achieved to reduce the number of child deaths every single day by more than 17,000. Compared with 1990 this is equivalent to saving 27 planes full of children from crashing, every single day. Were it to receive as much attention as plane crashes do, we think this would be seen as a very substantial achievement!

Spectacular events that generate headlines are not more important than everyday human suffering and the slow, long-term progress that is needed to combat it. Every case of a family losing a child is a tragedy, regardless of how common or uncommon the cause. And even after impressive improvement in global health the unseen daily cruelty of child death remains immense: Close to 6 million children still die every year; 16,000 children every day.

The very enormous global tragedy of child mortality and the substantial reduction of child mortality never make the headlines. But we should be aware of both. The still very high number of child deaths and the historical perspective that gives us reason to believe that it is possible to allow more children to live their lives.