A life cut short is the greatest injustice of all...
and being able to live a long human life is a critical measure of development according to Amartya Sen, and the most basic of human capabilities in Martha Nussbaum’s “Ten Central Capabilities.” But we live in a world where 13 million people die before they turn 50, including 5.7 million children under the age of 15, according to the Global Burden of Disease. There are wide gender gaps in early deaths among adults, with 4.7 million male deaths compared to 2.7 million female deaths due to excess male deaths from road injuries, heart disease, and self-harm. If we add in the estimated 1.4 million unborn females who are victims of sex selection every year, the gender gap shrinks but is not eliminated. If we include female deaths from sex selection and the estimated 1.9 million stillbirths that occur, we have a total population of 16.3 million whose lives are cut short every year.
A handful of causes account for the majority of the 13 million early deaths, including neonatal disorders, pneumonia, road injuries, diarrhea, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, malaria, congenital defects, self-harm, and tuberculosis. The leading risk factors for early death include low birth weight, short gestation, child wasting, high blood pressure, alcohol use, household air pollution, unsafe sex, unsafe water, outdoor air pollution, and high body-mass. The majority (55%) of early deaths occur in just ten countries including India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Brazil, the USA, Russia, and Ethiopia. Four countries - India, Nigeria, China, and Pakistan - account for a massive 5.4 million early deaths. Moreover, in many of these countries deaths before the age of 50 represent a large proportion of overall deaths, 67% in Nigeria, 56% in the DRC, 52% in Pakistan, and 41% in Ethiopia - all well above the global average of 23% and Japan’s best of 3%.
All countries should make reducing deaths among under 50 year-olds the focus of their national health goals and maintain early deaths below 20% of all deaths by 2025, and below 15% by 2030. Countries that are already below these levels should aim for a rate below 15% in 2025 and below 7% in 2030, with Japan's rate of 3% as the ultimate goal. National health investments should target both the leading country-specific causes of early death and the leading risk factors. In countries where stillbirths and sex selection at birth are major challenges, preventing pregnancy termination related to sex selection and stillbirths should be priorities. In addition to investing in better diagnosis and treatment of the leading causes of early deaths, governments and other stakeholders should invest heavily in reducing population exposure to the major country-specific risk factors for early death especially low birth weight, short gestation, child wasting, high blood pressure, alcohol use, household air pollution, unsafe sex, unsafe water, outdoor air pollution, and high body-mass.
The United Nations (UN), its agencies, and development partners should reinforce this national focus on reducing early deaths under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and target their health investments to the leading causes and risk factors associated with early death. They should prioritize the highest-impact interventions that can prevent, diagnose, and treat the leading causes of early death and reduce the major risk factors, and prioritize the populations with the largest burdens of early death. To model the much-needed integration in the financing and delivery of the products and services with the greatest potential to reduce early deaths, the UN, its agencies, and partners should establish flagship multi-sector initiatives in the highest-burden countries that target leading causes of early death and the major risks associated with them.
Updated January 2024