Efforts to Save the Children
“We have gathered at the World Summit for Children to undertake a joint commitment and to make an urgent universal appeal—to give every child a better future.”—United Nations Conference, 1990.
PRESIDENTS and prime ministers from over 70 countries gathered in New York City on September 29 and 30, 1990, to discuss the plight of the world’s children.
The conference focused international attention on the deplorable suffering of children, a global tragedy that has been swept under the rug. United States delegate Peter Teeley pointed out: “If 40,000 spotted owls were dying every day, there would be outrage. But 40,000 children are dying, and it’s hardly noticed.”
All the assembled heads of government agreed that something must be done—urgently. They made a “solemn commitment to give high priority to the rights of children, to their survival and to their protection and development.” What concrete proposals did they make?
Over 50 Million Young Lives in the Balance
The primary objective was to rescue over 50 million children who would likely die during the 1990’s. Many of these young lives could be saved by implementing the following health measures.
• If all mothers in developing countries were persuaded to breast-feed their babies for at least four to six months, a million children would be saved annually.
• The extensive use of oral rehydration therapy (ORT) could halve the death rate due to diarrhea, which kills four million children every year.a
• Widespread vaccination and the use of inexpensive antibiotics could prevent millions of other deaths due to diseases such as measles, tetanus, and pneumonia.
Is that type of health program feasible? The cost would probably reach $2.5 billion a year by the end of the decade. In global terms this outlay would be minimal. American tobacco companies spend that amount each year—just on cigarette advertising. Every day the nations of the world lavish that same amount on military expenditure. Could such funds be better spent on the health of endangered children? The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child pointedly states that “mankind owes the child the best it has to give.”
Of course, giving “every child a better future” involves a lot more than saving them from a premature death. Sandra Huffman, president of the Center to Prevent Childhood Malnutrition, explains in Time magazine that “ORT doesn’t prevent diarrhea, it only saves children from dying from it. . . . What we need to do now,” she adds, “is focus on how we can prevent the illness, not just the death.”
In order to improve—besides save—the lives of millions of children, several ambitious programs have been launched. (See box on page 6.) None will be easy to fulfill.
Clean Water Within Walking Distance
Felicia Onu used to spend five hours every day fetching water for her family. The water she carried home was often contaminated. (Such water brings with it an annual scourge of guinea worm infection and contributes to outbreaks of diarrhea.) But in 1984, in her village of Ugwulangwu in eastern Nigeria, a well was dug and a hand pump installed.
Now she has to walk only a few hundred yards to get clean water. Her children are healthier, and her life has become much easier. More than a billion people like Felicia gained access to clean water during the 1980’s. But millions of women and children still spend many hours each day lugging pails that contain less water than the amount that is casually flushed away by an average Western toilet.
Ups and Downs in Education
Maximino is a bright 11-year-old boy who lives in a remote area of Colombia. Despite spending several hours a day helping his father tend their crops, he is doing well at school. He goes to an Escuela Nueva, or New School, that has a flexible program designed to help children to catch up if they have to miss a few days’ school—a common occurrence, especially at harvest time. Teachers are a luxury in Maximino’s school. Textbooks are in short supply. The children are encouraged to help one another with what they don’t understand, and they themselves do most of the work involved in running the school. This innovative system—specially tailored to meet the needs of poor rural communities—is being tried in many other countries.
Thousands of miles from Colombia, in a large Asian city, lives another bright 11-year-old, named Melinda. She has recently left school in order to devote 12 hours a day to salvaging bits of metal and plastic from one of the city’s huge garbage dumps. “I want to help my father so that we can have a meal every day,” Melinda says. “If I didn’t help him, we might not be able to afford to eat at all.” Even on a good day, she brings home only about 35 cents (U.S.).
Child Health Workers
On the outskirts of the Indian city of Bombay is a shantytown called Malvani, where disease has long been endemic. At last things are improving, thanks to energetic health workers such as Neetu and Aziz. They visit families to check whether the young children have been vaccinated or if they are suffering from diarrhea, scabies, or anemia. Neetu and Aziz are only 11 years old. They volunteered to work in a program in which older children are assigned to monitor the health of the children under five. Because of the efforts of Neetu and Aziz—and the efforts of dozens of other children like them—nearly all the youngsters of Malvani have been immunized, most parents know how to administer oral rehydration therapy, and general hygiene has improved.
All over the world, enormous strides are being made to vaccinate young children against the most common diseases. (See chart on page 8.) Bangladesh has now immunized over 70 percent of its infant population, and China has immunized well over 95 percent. If every developing country could achieve the 90 percent mark, health experts believe that a collective immunity would result. When the vast majority are immunized, it is much harder for the disease to be transmitted.
Poverty, War, and AIDS
Nevertheless, the sad reality is that while headway is being made in health care and education, other problems remain as entrenched as ever. Three of the most intractable are poverty, war, and AIDS.
In recent years the poor people of the world have been getting poorer. Real income in impoverished areas of Africa and Latin America has decreased 10 percent or more in the last decade. Parents in these lands—where 75 percent of the family’s income is spent on food—just cannot afford to give their children a balanced diet.
‘Give the children vegetables and bananas,’ Grace was told at her local health clinic. But Grace, a mother of ten children, who lives in East Africa, has no money for food, and there is not enough water for her to grow those crops on the family’s quarter-acre [0.1 ha] plot. They have no choice but to subsist on corn and beans and to go hungry at times. If present trends continue, prospects are not likely to improve for Grace’s family or for millions of others like hers.
Grace’s children, poor as they are, fare better than eight-year-old Kim Seng of Southeast Asia, whose father was killed in a fratricidal civil war and whose mother subsequently died of starvation. Kim Seng, who also nearly died of malnutrition, eventually found sanctuary in a refugee camp. Many of the five million children who languish in refugee camps around the world have suffered similar hardships.
At the turn of the century, only 5 percent of war casualties were civilian. Now that figure has mushroomed to 80 percent, and the majority of these war victims are women or children. Those who may escape physical injury still suffer emotionally. “I can’t forget how my mother was killed,” says one child refugee from a country in south-central Africa. “They grabbed my mother and did bad things to her. Afterwards they tied her up and stabbed her. . . . Sometimes I dream about it.”
As violent conflicts keep on erupting in one country after another, it seems inevitable that innocent children will continue to suffer the ravages of war. Furthermore, international tension also harms children who are not directly involved in the conflicts. The military gobbles up money that could be spent providing better education, sanitation, and health care. World military spending by industrial countries exceeds the combined yearly income of the poorest half of mankind. Even the 46 poorest countries of the world spend as much on their military machines as they do on health and education combined.
Apart from poverty and war, another killer stalks the children of the world. During the 1980’s, while notable progress was being made in the fight against measles, tetanus, and diarrhea, a new health nightmare emerged: AIDS. The World Health Organization calculates that by the year 2000, ten million children will be infected. Most of these will never reach their second birthday, and hardly any will live for more than five years. “Unless something is done soon, AIDS threatens to wipe out all the progress we have made in child survival in the last 10 years,” laments Dr. Reginald Boulos, a Haitian pediatrician.
From this brief review, it is evident that despite some praiseworthy achievements, the aim of ‘giving every child a better future’ remains a mammoth task. Is there any hope that one day the dream will be realized?
a ORT provides children with the liquid, salt, and glucose needed to counteract the fatal dehydrating effects of diarrhea. The World Health Organization reported in 1990 that already more than one million lives a year are being saved by this technique. For more details, see the September 22, 1985, issue of Awake!, pages 23-5.
[Box on page 6]
Goals for the ’90’s—The Challenge to Save the Children
The nations attending the World Summit for Children made several concrete commitments. This is what they hope to achieve by the year 2000.
Vaccination. The present vaccination programs save three million children each year. But two million others are still dying. By immunizing 90 percent or more of the world’s children against the most common diseases, the majority of these deaths could be avoided.
Education. During the 1980’s, school enrollment actually declined in many of the poorest countries of the world. The goal is to reverse that trend and to ensure that by the end of the decade, every child has the chance to go to school.
Malnutrition. United Nations Children’s Fund officials believe that “with the right policies, . . . the world is now in a position to feed all the world’s children and to overcome the worst forms of malnutrition.” Proposals were made to halve the number of malnourished children during the present decade. Such an achievement would rescue 100 million children from the pangs of hunger.
Clean water and sanitation. In 1987, the Brundtland Report explained: “In the developing world, the number of water taps nearby is a better indication of the health of a community than is the number of hospital beds.” At present over a billion people have no access to clean water, and twice as many are without sanitary waste disposal. The aim is to provide universal access to safe drinking water and sanitary means for human waste disposal.
Protection. In the last decade, wars have caused over five million child casualties. Five million other children have been made homeless. These refugees, as well as the millions of street children and child workers, urgently need protection. The Convention on the Rights of the Child—now ratified by over a hundred countries—seeks to protect all these children from violence and exploitation.
[Chart on page 7]
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MAIN CAUSES OF CHILD DEATHS
(Children Under Five)
MILLIONS OF DEATHS EACH YEAR (1990 estimates):
0.51 MILLION Whooping Cough
0.79 MILLION Neonatal Tetanus
1.0 MILLION Malaria
1.52 MILLION Measles
2.2 MILLION Other Respiratory Infections
4.0 MILLION Diarrheic Disease
4.2 MILLION Other Causes
Source: WHO and UNICEF
[Chart on page 8]
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PROGRESS IN VACCINATION OF CHILDREN IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD 1980-1988
Percentage of children under 12 months who have been vaccinated
DPT3* 24% 66%
POLIO 20% 66%
TUBERCULOSIS 29% 72%
MEASLES 15% 59%
* DPT3: Combined vaccination for DIPHTHERIA, WHOOPING COUGH (PERTUSSIS), and TETANUS.
SOURCE: WHO and UNICEF (1980 figures do not include China)
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