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Child survival revolution gains speed. Better health care, changed attitudes save over 1 million children a year

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 12, 1985


The dominant image of third world children this year has been the face of a hungry African child. But now comes word of a different image: one of hope. Three years ago, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) began predicting that a ``child survival revolution'' was possible in the third world within 12 years if political leaders galvanized available resources and technologies.

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Last year, UNICEF reported the first glimmerings that the revolution had begun.

Now, in its annual ``State of the World's Children 1986'' report for 1986, UNICEF asserts that the revolution is well under way -- and accelerating -- in more than 40 nations including the world's two most populous, China and India.

Officials see it as a third world safety net being spread under society's most vulnerable members: children under the age of five.

Economic recession, unemployment, drought, exploitation, neglect, and other obstacles still keep the safety net away from countless millions of children. Faster economic development is also needed to let children make the most of the lives the ``revolution'' is said to be saving.

But UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Richard Jolly, during an interview in London, insisted that he saw ``hard evidence'' of a ``near miracle'' in health care and in changing parental attitudes.

For years now, about 45,000 children under five -- 15 million a year -- have died daily from malnutrition and other ``easily preventable diseases,'' UN officials say.

Today, Dr. Jolly says, child mortality rates are beginning to fall -- dramatically -- in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.

The lives of ``well over 1 million children a year'' are being saved by two cheap, simple techniques alone, says UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant -- immunization and tiny salt-and-sugar packets to fight the dehydration that afflicts millions of poor children. Despite the continuing African famine, he says, it is now conceivable that 7 million lives a year can be saved by 1990.

Among parents, Jolly believes, apathy is slowly retreating before greater awareness. Old ways are yielding to new.

The salt-and-sugar packets are so simple and cheap that parents can adminster them without professional help. Release of the latest UNICEF report coincided with a global conference on the salt-sugar packets (technically referred to as ``oral rehydration'') organized by the US Agency for International Development in Washington Dec. 10-13.

Attended by about 1,000 delegates, the conference was opened by AID administrator M. Peter McPherson, who described his agency's own ``Child Survival Action Program'' now operating in 50 countries.

The program is partly financed by a special Congressional allocation of $50 million for the year ending Sept. 30, 1986. Last year Congress allocated $85 million. AID also provides some funds for UNICEF programs.

Two other methods included in UNICEF's ``revolution'' are also straightforward -- breast-feeding of infants and regular weighing to check growth.