A NEW decline in child deaths in Africa holds hope for a slowing of the continent's explosive population growth, United Nations officials say. In the last few decades the world has seen a decline in both the rate of deaths and the absolute numbers.
In 1950, for example, an estimated 25 million children under the age of 5 died. By 1980, that figure had dropped to 16 million, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. And this change has occurred at the same time that the overall number of births worldwide each year has risen significantly.
Africa, however, remains the only continent where the number of annual deaths is higher now than it was a decade ago, according to James P. Grant, executive director of UNICEF.
The declines are a welcome sign. According to UNICEF, sharp and sustained declines in child deaths are followed by sharp declines in births. In countries where infant mortality rates are high - mostly the world's poorest nations - parents tend to overcompensate by having more children than they want or can afford to feed and clothe. When child deaths are reduced, eventually parents have fewer children, UNICEF officials say.
Since the early 1970s, the yearly number of deaths of children under 5 had been climbing steadily in Africa. By 1985 it reached an estimated 4,460,000. But in 1986 it declined to 4,410,000 and in 1987 to 4,360,000, according to Mr. Grant, the UNICEF director.
``We believe the trend will continue,'' he said.
Grant attributes the drop in Africa's child death rates largely to the fact that better health care is being made available to a broader number of people. For example, many African countries have greatly expanded their immunization programs within the past several years, he says.
According to UNICEF, some 2 million children's lives are saved worldwide each year through these immunization programs and oral rehydration therapy, an inexpensive method of treating dehydration.
Another reason that lower infant mortality rates are being seen is the attention now given to prenatal care.
Many development agencies working in the developing world are focusing a great deal of attention on being sure that the mother is well cared for - on the premise that a healthy mother is much more likely to produce a healthy baby and be able to care for the child as it grows.
Africa has the highest birth- and infant-mortality rates of any continent, and its annual population growth rate, 2.8 percent, is the highest in the world.
Bringing down death rates is key to changing this picture, development officials say. It has been proved that where there are sustained declines in child deaths, ``the number of births come down even faster than the number of deaths [avoided],'' Grant says.
On average, the decline in births was twice the decline in child deaths in Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, China, South Korea, and Thailand, according to UNICEF reports.