The recently published “Global Burden of Disease Study 2013” in the journal Lancet gives us a glimpse of the leading causes of death in children worldwide. While data from India (the second most populous country in the world with more than 1.2 billion people) is incomplete, certain trends are still valid. For example, global life expectancy increased in both sexes from 65 years old in 1990 to 71 years old in 2013. Also, for all ages, death rates from 188 out of 240 causes declined between 1990-2013, with most of the “extraordinary epidemiological progress” seen in falling rates of communicable diseases (diarrhea, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and measles), neonatal disorders, and other complications of birth. Meanwhile, HIV-AIDS continues to be a global scourge, and deaths from cancer, heart disease, and other complications from obesity have been rising since 1990.

The elderly aside, the most vulnerable age to get sick and die is between birth and five years old. With the exception of HIV-AIDS, dramatic decreases in deaths have been reported with most other causes. In 2013, deaths from lower respiratory infections, which fell 60% since 1990, still caused the most fatalities, with pneumococcus, H. influenzae type B (HiB), respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and influenza leading the way. Malaria saw a slight uptick in cases from 1990-2013, becoming the second leading cause of death in children worldwide. Deaths from infectious diarrhea, down 51% from 1990, was next, caused mostly by rotavirus and cholera. There is no doubt that broader immunization strategies in developing countries have contributed to these reductions.

Other causes of death seeing declines include nutritional deficiencies (4th leading cause of death, down 42% from 1990-2013), congenital anomalies (5th, down 26%) and meningitis (6th, down 54%).

Christopher Ingraham puts the 7th leading cause of death in children worldwide in perspective:

More small children died from measles in 2013 than died from drowning, road injuries or [AIDS].

Here in the United States, we have the luxury of signing up for “personal belief exemptions” from vaccine requirements and indulging vaccine skeptics in their unfounded beliefs about the “dangers” posed by measles vaccines. Currently there are 113 countries that can boast better measles vaccination rates than the United States. The only reason this is possible, of course, is the incredible effectiveness of vaccines at eradicating diseases like measles.

But these numbers serve as a stark reminder that in the developing world, where measles kills roughly 225 children each day, the situation is quite different. Children under 5 make up more than half of the 145,000 deaths attributed to the disease annually. In some particularly impoverished and malnourished areas, the disease has a fatality rate of 10 percent.


Still, it’s good to look on the bright side: On this planet, measles, as a cause of death in children, declined by 83% over the 15 years of the study.

More proof that vaccines work.