It turns out that pencils and books for mothers may be as important as vaccines and drugs for babies in reducing child mortality in the developing world.
That's because a mother's education level has a huge, if indirect, effect on the health of her children. That relationship, observed in many small studies in rich countries, turns out to be true everywhere on the globe, according to a new study.
Half the reduction in child mortality over the past 40 years can be attributed to the better education of women, according to the analysis published in the journal Lancet today. For every one-year increase in the average education of reproductive-age women, a country experienced a 9.5 percent decrease in child deaths.
Better-educated women are more likely to understand disease-prevention measures such as vaccines and mosquito nets, and to use them, according to study co-author Christopher J.L. Murray. They are more likely to take a sick child to a clinic early and to follow treatment instructions. They are more likely to understand germ theory and set clean water and sanitation as household priorities.
Improving education in a country tends to increase national wealth, which in turn improves the population's health. But the new study shows that improving education directly reduces child mortality — and more effectively than increasing gross domestic product.
Worldwide, there were 8.2 million fewer deaths in 2009 among children younger than 5 than in 1970. Of those "averted deaths," 4.2 million were the result of better-educated mothers. The rest of the lives saved were attributable to higher-income households and better health interventions, the study found.