How Zambia reduced inequalities in under-five mortality rates over the last two decades: a mixed-methods study
Wehrmeister, Fernando C.
Blanchard, Andrea K.
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Background Zambia experienced a major decline in under-five mortality rates (U5MR), with one of the fastest declines in socio-economic disparities in sub-Saharan Africa in the last two decades. We aimed to understand the extent to which, and how, Zambia has reduced socio-economic inequalities in U5MR since 2000. Methods Using nationally-representative data from Zambia Demographic Health Surveys (2001/2, 2007, 2013/14 and 2018), we examined trends and levels of inequalities in under-five mortality, intervention coverage, household water and sanitation, and fertility. This analysis was integrated with an in-depth review of key policy and program documents relevant to improving child survival in Zambia between 1990 and 2020. Results The under-five mortality rate (U5MR) declined from 168 to 64 deaths per 1000 live births between 2001/2 and 2018 ZDHS rounds, particularly in the post-neonatal period. There were major reductions in U5MR inequalities between wealth, education and urban–rural residence groups. Yet reduced gaps between wealth groups in estimated absolute income or education levels did not simultaneously occur. Inequalities reduced markedly for coverage of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health (RMNCH), malaria and human immunodeficiency virus interventions, but less so for water or sanitation and fertility levels. Several policy and health systems drivers were identified for reducing RMNCH inequalities: policy commitment to equity in RMNCH; financing with a focus on disadvantaged groups; multisectoral partnerships and horizontal programming; expansion of infrastructure and human resources for health; and involvement of community stakeholders and service providers. Conclusion Zambia’s major progress in reducing inequalities in child survival between the poorest and richest people appeared to be notably driven by government policies and programs that centrally valued equity, despite ongoing gaps in absolute income and education levels. Future work should focus on sustaining these gains, while targeting families that have been left behind to achieve the sustainable development goal targets.