The number of children aged five or under dying in Asia-Pacific dropped from 2.2 million in 1990 to 694,000 last year, the United Nations Children’s Fund announced on Thursday.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization Thursday released the estimates in the report Levels & Trends in Child Mortality 2011.

“Much of the success in reducing child deaths in the region has been the result of years of investment in national immunization programmes,” said Basil Rodriques, UNICEF’s advisor on child survival for East Asia and the Pacific.

“This has led to the number of vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths decreasing dramatically over the past 20 years, particularly among children aged 2-5 years,” he added.

While immunization programmes have boosted the survival rates among 2-5 year-olds, they have not been as effective in preventing deaths in the first year of life.

According to UNICEF, 79 per cent of child deaths in the region occur in the first year, and the vast majority of those within a month of birth.

The U.N. agency said further reductions in child mortality will “require governments to invest more strategically in healthcare infrastructure and services, especially in rural and remote areas.” UNICEF also noted a growing disparity between children who have benefited from the rapid economic development in the region, chiefly in urban centres, and those on the margins of society such as ethnic minorities, and children in remote and rural areas.

“The growing disparities that exist throughout the region must be addressed to ensure all communities have access to reliable health services and not just those living in well-off urban environments,” Rodriques said.