Children Wait on World's Promises

ONE year ago this week, the largest gathering of heads of government in history convened at the World Summit for Children to heed the cries of the world's dying and suffering children. What they heard and saw that day revealed and dramatized a quiet catastrophe; at last, child survival has been able to occupy center stage.The assembly was more than symbolic. It produced a plan of action with priorities to eradicate threats to child survival and to provide the educational opportunities essential to individual and global prosperity. The goals were clear and sweeping, led by an imperative to cut each country's child-mortality rate by at least one-third by the year 2000 to save the lives of more than 30 million children. The 71 leaders of nations also resolved to reduce maternal mortality, child malnutrition, and adult illiteracy by half and to provide universal access to clean water, safe sanitation, and primary education. In many cases, the challenges and the means to solve them have been with us for years. It was discovered a decade ago that a salt-based "oral rehydration" solution costing 10 cents a dose could prevent some 2.5 million deaths a year from diarrheal dehydration. Half of the 40,000 child deaths occurring each day in this world are preventable. In Bangladesh alone, each year hundreds of thousands of children die from diseases for which inexpensive vaccines and other preventive interventions exist. Expanded immunization programs sponsored by the Carter Center's Task Force for Child Survival, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, Bangladesh, the United States, and others are helping, but we need vast resources to do more. A staggering realization is that all the health goals adopted at the summit could be reached for an additional $25 billion over 10 years - roughly the amount the world spends on the military every 10 days. Like imbalanced fiscal priorities, our deficit in public health education also contributes to infant deaths and premature births. According to a 1991 UNICEF report, the US infant-mortality rate increased from 10th lowest worldwide in 1960 to 19th lowest in 1989. According to the US Office of Technology Assessment, our country could save $14,000 to $30,000 in hospital and long-term health costs associated with each low-birth-weight baby - funds that could go toward public education and prevention. Contrary to the fear expressed so often, reducing infant and childhood death rates has now been shown to be associated with a decline in net population growth. We must boldly attack the numbing and senseless tragedy of high death rates, disease rates, and birth rates. USTAINED political will to tackle long-term, complex problems is essential to interrupting the self-perpetuating cycle of death and misery for children. From my term as president and our worldwide peace and health initiatives at the Carter Center, I know personally many of those who attended the summit. I am confident those leaders will commit new resources to reach the bold goals they set a year ago. Still, it is imperative to keep before the public the needs of our children, who have no voting voice in either democratic or totalitarian systems. A campaign I have joined called Keeping the Promise will bring the concerns of our children to the forefront of consciousness. Building on the success of last year's worldwide candlelight vigils by more than a million people in 75 countries, the campaign will mobilize children and adults in schools and places of worship worldwide to ensure our leaders keep the promises they made. Children at Crestwood Elementary School in Las Vegas will sign posters to send to Congress; the German Federal Post Office in Frankfurt am Main will stamp all mail for 10 days with a Keeping the Promise logo. Materials have been prepared that can be adapted to worship services of any faith in any country, and hundreds of priests, rabbis, ministers, and other religious leaders already have agreed to use them. Where people are aware and actively working together to achieve goals of survival and prosperity, governments will not be far behind. Our leaders cannot reach the summit's goals without the will and support of the people. Only if we all work together will the promises to our children be kept.

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