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Child Mortality in the UK is among the Highest in Western Europe

May 03, 2014 10:07 AM EDT

When it comes to mortality in children under 5 years of age, the UK is among the leading Western European nations, according to new research published in The Lancet medical journal.

Compared to global averages, child mortality in the UK is quite low, but among the developed nations of Western Europe, the UK has higher rates of child death than nearly every country in the region, a team of researchers with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, report.

"We were surprised by these findings because the UK has made so many significant advances in public health over the years," IHME director and senior study author Christopher Murray said in a statement. "The higher than expected child death rates in the UK are a reminder to all of us that, even as we are seeing child mortality decline worldwide, countries need to examine what they are doing to make sure more children grow into adulthood."

The UK's child mortality rate is 4.9 deaths per 1,000 births, a figure that's more than double the nation with the lowest child mortality in Western Europe, Iceland, which reports 2.4 deaths per 1,000 births.

In 2013, the UK had the highest number of child deaths in the region with 3,800, the researchers found.

When child mortality rates are looked at across Europe, the UK fares better. In Central Europe, for instance, the average child mortality rate surpasses the UK's. And in Eastern Europe the child mortality rate is nearly double the UK's.

Globally, the UK has a higher under-5-years-old mortality rate than Australia, Israel, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, the researchers said in a statement.

However, overall early childhood death is on the decline globally, with many countries seeing a sharp decline in the figure since 1990.

The UK, too, saw a decline in childhood mortality, but the decrease was not as sharp as it was for other nations.

"These figures show the significant health burden that children bear in the UK compared with their European neighbors," The Lancet Editor-in-Chief Richard Horton said in a statement.

"The reasons for this are likely to be complex, but undoubtedly include the poor organization of children's health services in the UK. Until our politicians begin to take the health of children -- the health of the next generation of British citizens -- more seriously, newborns and older children will continue to suffer and die needlessly," he said.

A related study also published in The Lancet on Friday revealed that maternal mortality rates have increased in the United States.

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