Page last updated at 19:41 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Unicef child-death campaign in Africa 'failed'

Ghanaian mother and children in Princess Marie Louise Children's Hospital in Accra, file image
Unicef says its programme helped influence governments

A UN programme to combat child deaths from disease in West Africa has failed, a Johns Hopkins University study says.

Unicef spent $27m (£17m) rolling out vaccinations, vitamin A pills and bed nets to protect against malaria from 2001 to 2005 in areas of 11 countries.

The researchers studied parts of Ghana, Mali and Benin and said children often survived better outside the UN scheme.

Unicef said the programme succeeded in raising standards of care across whole countries, not just in target areas.

Jennifer Bryce, of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the BBC's Focus on Africa there had been "too many missed opportunities to save children's lives".

"The lives of many children with pneumonia, diarrhoea or malaria could have been saved if a trained community health worker had been on hand to provide correct treatment," she said.

"But instead what we found was there were few gains [in the areas covered by Unicef] for providing treatment for these diseases - and some losses."

'Success, not failure'

The study, published in the British medical journal Lancet, claimed that child deaths fell by 13% in areas of Benin targeted by Unicef.

But in areas of the country where the programme was not introduced, the death rate dropped by almost 25%.

In Mali the researchers found death rates fell by 24% in districts where the Unicef programme was set up, but 31% elsewhere in the country.

The UN agency's Mickey Chopra told the BBC it was a misinterpretation to say the programme had failed.

"The programme always was about encouraging governments... to put these interventions in place all over the country," he said.

"And we showed that coverage of things like vaccinations, vitamin A pills and bed nets did increase all over the countries after the programme had started.

"So the fact that we succeeded in increasing coverage of these interventions across the whole country - which in turn meant that the whole country showed improvement - is a success of the programme not a failure."

Unicef's aim was to reduce the death rate by at least 25% by the end of 2006.

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