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Study Finds Mothers’ Education Levels Affect Child Mortality

A study published in the journal Lancet on Friday found that “a mother’s education level has a huge, if indirect, effect on the health of her children,” the Washington Post reports.

“Half the reduction in child mortality over the past 40 years can be attributed to the better education of women, according to the analysis … Worldwide, there were 8.2 million fewer deaths in 2009 among children younger than 5 than there were in 1970. Of those ‘averted deaths,’ 4.2 million were the result of better-educated mothers,” the newspaper writes (Bown, 9/16).

The study, conducted by researchers from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, “shows that education is rising in every region. Most dramatically, average years of schooling for women of reproductive age (ages 15 to 44) in developing countries have grown from 2.2 years to 7.2 years,” states an IHME press release. At the same time, according to the release, in “six countries – Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Yemen–women receive less than one year of schooling” (9/16). 

Researchers obtained results by using “915 censuses and surveys from 175 countries tracking education, economic growth, HIV rates and child deaths from 1970 to 2009,” the Associated Press reports (Cheng, 9/16).

Study co-author Christopher Murray explained that a mother’s education affects the health of her children in many ways, the Washington Post writes. “According to Murray, better-educated women are more likely to understand disease-prevention measures such as vaccines and mosquito nets, and to use them. 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. With more schooling, women tend to have fewer children and space births more widely, both of which also reduce child mortality.”

Al Bartlett, a child health expert at USAID, said the findings are not unexpected, “but the magnitude is impressive.” Bartlett added, “It clearly justifies what many have been saying for a long time – that one of the investments we need to make is girls’ education” (9/16).

AP notes that “not everyone was convinced that the study’s conclusions were right.”

“Education is not much good if the health facilities and infrastructure don’t exist,” said Philip Stevens, a senior fellow at the International Policy Network. “If a country is massively misgoverned, like Sierra Leone, no amount of education is going to put bread on the table for children.”

William Easterly, an economics professor at New York University, said, “It sounds plausible that education is related to child mortality, but finding a correlation does not prove causation.”

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the study (9/16).

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