Historical Research Reveals Shocking Child Mortality Rates

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The mortality of children has been a tragic and prevalent reality throughout human history. A combination of poverty, hunger, and disease has led to high child mortality rates, with about half of all children dying in every society worldwide. Despite efforts by healers and doctors, progress against early death and disease was slow and difficult.   

As per Our World in Data, a family is mourning their child’s loss in a small Swedish town. The passing of a child is one of the most devastating experiences that anyone can imagine, reminding people of the fragility of life and the importance of cherishing every moment with loved ones. 

While it is commonly believed that child deaths were more frequent, historical data gathered by archaeologists and historians from various places and periods paint a vivid picture of the past. In Sweden, for instance, establishing the Tabellverket in 1749 provided valuable population statistics. Analysis of statistical records from the first three decades between 1750 and 1780 reveals that 40% of children died before they reached 15 years old. These findings are particularly poignant since the average couple had more than 5, 6, or even seven children, which means that most parents witnessed the death of several of their children.  

Moreover, research from different locations and periods in history indicates similarly high child mortality rates. Skeletons discovered in modern-day Peru suggest that almost half of all children did not survive to reach puberty two millennia ago. Meanwhile, a burial site in Mallorca revealed that half of all children did not survive the Iron Age in Europe. Similarly, data collected on 17 different hunter-gatherer societies showed an average child mortality rate of 49%.  

These findings provide insight into the prevalence of child mortality throughout history and underscore the importance of learning from our past to understand the present better. They also remind us how far we have come in the healthcare field and the significant strides we have made in reducing child mortality rates.   

In a detailed analysis of historical estimates of child mortality, researchers have found that approximately half of all children died across cultures and time periods. This sobering fact is a reminder of the unrelenting suffering that has plagued humanity for millennia, with billions of parents mourning the loss of their children. Despite the efforts of healers and doctors throughout history, there has been little progress in reducing child mortality until recently. 

While some societies were better off than others, the differences were minor, and generations were born into poverty, hunger, and disease. The historical studies of child mortality provide snapshots of moments in our species’ long history, and birth rates were high. Still, population growth was near zero, suggesting that many children died before they could have children.  

However, recent decades have seen unprecedented progress in reducing child mortality rates, with global data showing a decline from around 50% to 4%. This is a remarkable achievement, with progress being made in every single country worldwide. While child deaths have become rare in the wealthiest parts of the world, differences across countries remain high, with Somalia having the highest rate at 14% of newborns dying as children.

Progress against child mortality is seen as one of humanity’s most outstanding achievements, and the hope is that this progress continues until the daily tragedy of child deaths is eradicated. This goal is achievable, as several countries have shown that 99.7% of children can survive. 


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