The news stories that dominated public attention in 2012 range from tragic to comic: from the horror of a school shooting, to a neck-and-neck election campaign, and even a monkey wandering a Toronto Ikea.

Among those stories, however, UNICEF Canada argues that there are some tales that largely eluded the public eye last year.

In a recently released list of “underreported child survival stories,” the agency aims to bring more attention to issues such as malaria, tetanus and child marriage.

By UNICEF’s count, roughly 19,000 children die every day from causes that are easily preventable. But Meg French, the agency’s director of international programs, says Canadian audiences tend to overlook these stories because they often involve circumstances that don’t affect them directly.

“Generally, we tend to focus on politics and on the political movings and shakings of the world,” she told CTV’s Canada AM in a Wednesday morning interview. “But the reality is: these are the stories of the majority of the people of the world.”


French points to recent advancements made in the treatment of meningitis, a fast-acting infection that inflames the lining around the brain and spinal cord. There are different strains of bacteria that cause meningitis, and the vaccines used to prevent infection are just as diverse.

According to the Meningitis Research Foundation of Canada, almost all patients infected with viral meningitis experience a full recovery within five to 10 days. But in sub-Saharan Africa’s “meningitis belt,” UNICEF says the disease endangers the lives of 450 million people in 26 countries.

Two years ago, a meningitis vaccine was developed specifically for Africa. MenAfriVac is 50 cents cheaper than other vaccines and can go days without refrigeration, a development that has knocked down a major logistical issue faced in obtaining the treatment.

“This vaccine, in particular, is an interesting one because it was actually developed for Africa -- which isn’t usually the way vaccines are developed,” said French.

It’s estimated that the vaccine reached more than 112 million people on the continent in 2012.

Drowning deaths

Further east, in Asia, French said there have been major strides made in 2012 to prevent drowning deaths. According to UNICEF, 95 per cent of child drowning deaths occur on the continent.

In Canada, it’s not unusual for children to be introduced to swimming lessons early on in life. But in countries such as Bangladesh children often grow up without basic swimming skills, said French.

UNICEF has dubbed the issue of child drowning deaths a “silent emergency” because the incidents are rarely reported. Some families fear large hospital fees or legal consequences if they report their child’s death to authorities, the agency says.

Efforts to reduce the number of drowning deaths are underway in Asia.

In 2009, UNICEF began teaching water safety skills to children in Bangladesh. According to the agency, drowning rates among children who have gone through the program are 90 per cent lower than those of children who have not taken the class.

Babies born to children

Canada was among several countries that marked the first International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11, 2012. Among the issues highlighted in the awareness campaign were the challenges faced by child brides, and the difficulties that arise when young marriages result in pregnancy.

Babies born to extremely young mothers face a higher risk of illness and death, UNICEF says. The children are often born preterm, and are 60 per cent more likely to die before their first birthday.

The infants that do survive childhood are often malnourished and slower to develop.

Many of these newborns are born to mothers who were child brides. If current rates of child marriage continue, UNICEF predicts 150 million more girls will be married by their 18th birthday within the next decade. The agency has called for a global effort to end child marriages.

Full list: UNICEF Canada’s Underreported Child Survival Stories 2012

  1. Meningitis: MenAfriVac campaign reaches 100 million in two years
  2. Drowning deaths: Reluctance to report in Asia a “silent emergency”
  3. Babies of child brides: These children 60 per cent more likely to die before first birthday
  4. Malaria: Effects of climate change raising the threat of malaria
  5. Malnutrition: Child malnutrition hitting crisis levels in Yemen
  6. Tetanus: Kiwanis project aims to eliminate tetanus worldwide
  7. Bill-C398: Canada’s parliament voted down a bill proposing changes to Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, which would help export low cost medicine to the world’s poor.
  8. Birth asphyxia: UN working to end a common cause of newborn deaths
  9. Diarrhea: A major issue for 2.5 billion people without proper sanitation
  10. Pneumonia: Vaccine finally reaching remote areas of Ghana