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The World's Children Need Our Help
by David Suzuki PhD

We in North America naturally fear for the welfare of our children. Like other parents around the world, we are concerned about their safety, about disease and injury. We want to protect them from harm. But unlike in many other regions, almost all of our children will survive past the age of five.

Every year, more than 10 million children under that age die. Most die from preventable illnesses and, remarkably, the situation is getting worse, not better.

Medical experts writing a series of reports for the medical journal The Lancet describe the health of the world's children as "abysmal." Worldwide mortality for children had been falling by 2.5 per cent per year from 1960 to 1990. But in the years since, that has been reduced by more than half. And the disparity between rich and poor nations is growing.

In 1990, industrialized nations had a childhood (under the age of five) death rate of less than one per cent, compared to 18 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2000, sub-Saharan Africans were still losing nearly 18 per cent of their children, while parents in industrialized nations were seeing 99.4 per cent of theirs survive. In other words, children under five in sub-Saharan Africa are 29 times more likely to die than are those in developed nations.

Just six countries, India, Nigeria, China, Pakistan, the Congo and Ethiopia, account for more than half of all child deaths. Even within these countries, great disparities exist. For example, most of the deaths occur in rural areas, but death rates in urban slums are especially high. And although these countries account for the greatest total number of child deaths, the countries with the highest death rates are actually quite different. Sierra Leone, Niger, Angola and Afghanistan all see more than 25 per cent of their children die before the age of five. Their smaller populations just put them lower on a scale of absolute numbers.

Immediate causes of death vary from region to region. Overall, 33 per cent are due to neonatal (post-birth) problems like infection, 22 per cent are from diarrhea, 21 per cent are from pneumonia, nine per cent from malaria, three per cent from AIDS and one per cent from measles. The report's authors point out that these health problems often act in "synergy" with each other, which means that together they have a higher death rate than either acting alone.

Another case of synergy appears with malnourishment. Chronically undernourished children are far more likely to succumb to disease compared to those children who are of adequate nutrition. In total, 53 per cent of all child deaths can be attributed to being underweight. Infants who have not been breastfed are also at greater risk. They are five times more likely to die from both diarrhea and pneumonia. Children deficient in vitamin A and zinc face increased mortality rates as well.

In spite of promises by the United Nations to reduce child deaths 60 per cent by 2015, funding for child health programs has actually dropped to its lowest levels since 1995. The authors of The Lancet report surmise that $7.5 billion is needed per year to adequately improve children's health in developing nations. It will be a complex process, as the profile of child deaths differs remarkably from country to country and region to region. Attempts to reduce death rates cannot use a simple blanket approach if they are to be effective. They need to be based on sound science and good data. Both of which require money.

When North Americans are reaching record levels of obesity, it is absurd that more than half of all childhood deaths are spurred by hunger. It is equally absurd that in today's "globalized" world, where you can buy a Coke practically anywhere, children are still denied basic medical care. We must find the courage to change our priorities because children everywhere deserve to look forward to a future past the age of five.

David T. Suzuki PhD, the Chair of the David Suzuki Foundation, is an award-winning scientist, environmentalist and broadcaster. David has received consistently high acclaim for his thirty years of award-winning work in broadcasting; explaining the complexities of science in a compelling, easily understood way. He is well known to millions as the host of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's popular science television series, The Nature of Things. Take the Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org

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