Indicators of Health in International Development

Last Updated on February 17, 2021 by Karl Thompson

Health is a crucial indicator of development – The International Aid community believe that health is the most important thing to spend money on – with around 90% of the aid budget being spent in this area.

Four basic measurements of health in development

It is possible to classify these indicators differently, but for the purposes of A-level sociology, I think four are sufficient:

  • Life Expectancy – The average number of years people are expected to live in a country (which if you remember makes up one of the three indicators of the Human Development Index).
  • Child Mortality – The number of children which die before their first birthday (measured per thousand).
  • Maternal Health – The number of women who die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth. 
  • Disease indicators – The proportion of the population that has AIDS, Malaria, diarrheal and other infectious diseases.

On all of the above four ‘indicators of health’, things are generally worse in lower income countries than higher income ones.

Life Expectancy

in the UK average life-expectancy is 81.25 years and while this has been reduced by one year due to coivd-19). It is still far better than in the poorest countries on earth. According to statistics from Our World in Data Life Expectancy in Nigeria is 54.7 years, and in neighbouring Central African Republic it is 53.3 years.

Child Mortality

According to the World Health Organisation substantial global progress has been made in reducing child deaths in the last three decades. Since 1990, the global under-5 mortality rate has dropped by 59%, from 93 deaths per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 38 in 2019.

However, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the highest under-5 mortality rate in the world, with 1 child in 13 dying before his or her fifth birthday. Nigeria and India alone account for almost a third of all deaths.  Half of all under-five deaths in 2019 occurred in just five countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia.

Maternal Health

According to the World Health Organisation in approximately 295 000 women died from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, equivalent to almost 900 per day.

Women die from complications such as severe bleeding (mostly bleeding after childbirth), infections (usually after childbirth), high blood pressure during pregnancy (pre-eclampsia and eclampsia) complications from delivery and unsafe abortions.

86% of these preventable deaths were in Sub-Saharan Africa and young adolescent women aged 10-15 are especially at risk of dying maternal related deaths.

Disease indicators

In developing countries, the main causes of death are:

Most of the above causes of death are preventable and linked to poverty, poor nutrition and low standards of maternal care.

The main cause of death ‘neonatal conditions’ is clearly related to the relatively high child mortality rates and poor maternal health in low-income countries.

Lower Respiratory Infections – means mainly pneumonia, a complication which can develop from having the flu if you have a more immune system, in turn due to a poor diet.

Diarrhoeal diseases are linked to poor water and sanitation.

Heart Disease and Stroke are the main causes of death in high income countries, so the fact that these are increasing (kind of ironically) is a sign of economic development taking place!

Progress in improving health…

It’s worth noting how much progress has been made on improving health since the year 2000 and the start of the Millennium Development Goals.

In 2015 the main causes of death were:

  1. Lower respiratory infections11.3%
  2. Diarrheal diseases8.2%
  3. HIV/AIDS7.8%
  4. Heart disease 6.1%
  5. Malaria 5.2%
  6. Tuberculosis 4.3%
  7. Prematurity and low birth weight 3.2%
  8. Birth asphyxia and birth trauma 2.9%
  9. Neonatal infections 2.6%

Note how today Malaria and HIV have fallen down the league tables and Heart Disease and stroke, both diseases associated with longer life expectancy, have entered the top 10!

Relevance to A-level Sociology


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