One out of every 20 children dies before the age of 5, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation wants to know why.

That’s according to the foundation’s announcement in early June 2015 of a $75 million investment in a new program named the Child Health and Mortality Prevention Surveillance Network, or CHAMPS.

The network will utilize ground teams in Africa and Asia to gather information about recent childhood deaths. Teams will be positioned in key areas and will collect samples to be analyzed in advanced laboratories. In doing so, the foundation hopes to replace the current practice of conducting “verbal autopsies”—asking questions of parents following a child’s death—with something more comprehensive.

“The world needs better, more timely public health data not only to prepare for the next epidemic, but to save children’s lives now,” said Bill Gates, co-chair of the foundation, in announcing the investment.

As part of the new program, teams will utilize minimally invasive needle biopsies to take samples from certain deceased children after obtaining permission from parents. The samples will then be analyzed at labs throughout the world to determine the cause of death. Key partners in this effort will include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the Global Health Institute at Emory University.

While these teams will mostly be focused on monitoring childhood deaths, they will also be able to respond to global health crises, should the need arise. In an interview with The Atlantic, Gates stated the program would help detect epidemics sooner and deploy key resources faster. Gates believes this will improve upon the reaction time seen in the Ebola crisis.

The Ebola epidemic, still ongoing, is responsible for at least 26,000 reported cases and 11,000 deaths; the World Health Organization estimates many more cases have gone unreported. According to The New York Times, the WHO believes the first Ebola victim was a one-year-old boy. As the epidemic worsened, 12 weeks passed before the virus was properly diagnosed.

The new program may make a difference in some of the world’s poorest regions. High child mortality is a common symptom of poverty and is an indicator of poor access to medical services. It often causes overpopulation, as families are forced to consider that not all of their children will survive to adolescence.

The United Nations has made the reduction of childhood mortality a centerpiece of its development policy, naming it as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals. Since 1990, childhood mortality has been reduced by 50 percent. With new efforts and innovative technology, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hopes to cut the rate in half once more.

– Kevin Mclaughlin

Sources: The Atlantic, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 1, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation 2, New York Times 1, New York Times 2, United Nations, World Health Organization
Photo: Lagos Daily News