What is the life of a child worth?
How about $887?
That is but one astounding statistic in a major new study aimed at reducing the child mortality rate in 42 of the world's poorest countries, where 90 percent of the deaths occur.
But here's the show stopper:
A worldwide investment of $5.1 billion a year could save the lives of 6 million children in countries ranging from India to Congo.
That comes down to an annual cost of $1.23 per resident in all of those countries, a figure so paltry that failure to take action is criminal. The researchers say most of that cost is within reach -- and should be borne -- by the countries in which the children are dying.
The latest study is a response to a United Nations resolution calling for a major assault on the death rate among children below the age of 5.
"The resolution has now been signed by virtually every country in the world, and it calls for the achievement of a serious set of goals," says Robert Black, chairman of the department of international health in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, one of the authors of the study. "One of those goals is the reduction of child mortality by two-thirds between the years 1990 and 2015."
But how do you attack such a devastating problem, especially in countries where mere survival is a daily struggle? Black and several colleagues addressed that issue in a series of articles a couple of years ago in the medical journal Lancet. They found that a major impact on child mortality could be achieved much more easily than had been thought.
Relying largely on studies from the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other organizations, the researchers concluded that there are a number of measures -- called "interventions" -- that have been proven to reduce child mortality. If you can prevent or treat such common diseases as pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria, they found, you will reduce threats that now account for three-quarters of the child deaths around the world.
But those encouraging reports left a huge gap in the game plan. No one knew whether it was economically feasible to do it.
So Black and his colleagues set out to see if all of this is just wishful thinking. Black admits that task was somewhat "daunting." It's hard enough to predict the cost of a new highway, much less an international project with many, many unknowns.
But the researchers say they found the answer. The project is "definitely feasible," Black says.
That's because no new scientific breakthroughs are needed. It's not necessary to build vast new medical complexes. Much of what is needed is already in place.
What seems to be lacking is the will to do it, and the relatively modest resources to make it work. Relying on proven results, the goal set by the United Nations is achievable at an annual cost of $5.1 billion, according to the research.
In the conclusion of their most recent report, published in the June 27 issue of Lancet, the researchers note that "$5 billion is about 6 percent of expenditures for tobacco products in the USA" during 2003.