Geneva, Switzerland (BBN)- Deaths of children under five years of age have plummeted by almost one third since 1990, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) said Thursday.

Some 9 million children under the age of five died in 1997, marking a sharp decline from the 12.5 million estimated to have died in 1990, according to “World Health Statistics,” WHO’s first progress report on the health-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – the eight globally-agreed anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline.

“The decline in the death toll of children under five illustrates what can be achieved by strengthening health systems and scaling up interventions, such as insecticide-treated mosquito nets for malaria and oral rehydration therapy for diarrhoea, increased access to vaccines and improved water and sanitation in developing countries,” said Ties Boerma, Director of WHO’s Department of Health Statistics and Informatics.

But the new study, which is based on over 100 health indicators collected from WHO’s 193 Member States, cautioned that in many African nations and in low-income countries, the fourth MDG – slashing child mortality by two-thirds – may not be met.

Dr. Boerma said that while encouraging progress has been made at the half-way point to the 2015 deadline, “there needs to be more effort to strengthen health systems in countries affected by high levels of HIV/AIDS, economic hardship or conflict.”

Maternal and newborn health has seen almost no improvement, Dr. Boerma said, with nearly 40 per cent of deaths among children under five occurring in the first month, even first week, of life.

BBN/SS/SI/AD-22May09-1:24 am (BST)