- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 14, 2002

World health officials and experts met in Stockholm this week to map out a plan to reduce the 11 million preventable child deaths each year amid charges that political posturing has left children's health unprotected.

The two-day meeting of technical experts from the World Health Organization and UNICEF that began Tuesday aimed to prepare a blueprint for fighting the principal killers of children: pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, measles, HIV/AIDS and malnutrition.

The blueprint is expected to be presented at the U.N. General Assembly's special session on children in May.

WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said in a statement that "the annual death toll of [11 million] children is nearly four times as high as the number of people dying from AIDS."

"We are failing our children and young people," she said and added that low-cost health interventions such as immunizations could help reduce the death rate by over 50 percent.

A health official at a prominent nongovernmental organization, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that UNICEF, once a leader in the fight to improve the health of Third World children, has shifted to a political agenda, emphasizing children's rights rather than health.

Another health official, also unwilling to be identified because her group has extensive dealings with UNICEF, said the U.N. agency has spent much energy winning approval of agendas for child rights.

"A lot of people are into these child rights issues, but it doesn't get the job done," she said.

Well-meant efforts in the past to end child labor had evicted children from jobs leaving them without any means of survival, she noted. These days, even when fighting child labor, NGOs have learned to keep the Third World factories open, simply working to shorten hours and allow time for primary school.

Anne Peterson, who led the U.S. Agency for International Development's delegation at the Stockholm meeting, said in an interview over the phone Tuesday that while "there has been criticism of UNICEF in the past that it focuses more on advocacy than services which it provided until recently I don't know how much of that is valid."

She said there has been a drop in the number of vaccinations in recent years but blamed them on a number of agencies.

As a result of the growing child health problems in part due to rise in populations helped by child survival programs WHO has appeared to take over the children's health mandate, leading what will become an international crusade to reverse a decade of neglect, an NGO official said.

Anne Henderson, a primary health care specialist with the group WorldVision, said, "We have made gains on child survival, but the poorest of the poor still lag behind."

A UNICEF report relased in London yesterday to coincide with the Stockholm meeting said approximately 150 million, almost a third of children in the developing world, still suffer from malnutrition.

The report said North Korea, where 60 percent of children under five are malnourished, was the worst affected, followed by Bangladesh and Afghanistan, with 48 percent.

Regarding HIV/AIDS, Miss Henderson said the General Assembly special session will discuss what she called "the window of hope for prevention" such as abstinence, delaying the onset of sex, waiting till marriage, single partners, and, if they go to risky behavior, protection.

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