Is this still news?

A.M.Rosenthal

July 03, 1991|By A.M.Rosenthal | A.M.Rosenthal,New York Times

New York -- THERE'S NO real news in this column except maybe that before tomorrow morning about 40,000 people will ** die who should have lived quite longer. These people are all less than 5 years old.

The day after, about the same number of small people will die -- give or take a thousand or two. And the day after that, and so on and so on, all through the year. If you put it all together, and multiply 40,000 by 365, would that be news, maybe worth writing, or reading, a column?

The children will die of disease, hunger and neglect. Most could have been saved with medicine, food, money and attention if xTC only they had been provided. To allow people of any age to die when they could have been saved is moral slaughter, a reality almost too obvious to pronounce.

But I am writing this column about the slaughter of the infants not because I have suddenly become a better, wiser or more moral person, no fear, but essentially for a selfish reason.

This morning I realized that unless I wrote at once about information that had just come to me in a heavy packet from Geneva I really could not get on to another column. That happens once in a while -- a journalistic block caused by an acute attack of a sense of values.

The package was from the World Health Organization. I had asked for updated information on the casualties of the war without end, against starvation and disease. The articles and statistical tables all are totally clear to anybody who can spare a few hours for 40,000 children -- that is, 40,000 a day.

Of course, as the WHO tables show, adults too die of preventable or curable disease and malnutrition. But of the yearly total of 50 million victims, one-third have not lived to their fifth birthday. The chance of living beyond the fifth birthday in one of those countries where children have big bellies and lolling heads is one in eight. Two-thirds of the dead children did not achieve their first birthday.

About 10,000 a day die after one week -- one week. Nothing mysterious here, no unexplained crib deaths. It is simply that their mothers did not receive sufficient "quality of care" during pregnancy and delivery. Insufficient quality of care means not enough food, medicine or clean birth cloths and water.

Every day about 8,000 children die because the countries in which they were born are unfortunate enough not to have vaccines against preventable diseases. Many of these countries have leaders so occupied with killing their subjects that they are too busy to think of saving their subjects' children.

And, of course -- AIDS. Half a million cases among women and children. Soon new tables will be necessary, because in this decade AIDS will kill three million women and children. Yes, and about 10 million children will become AIDS orphans.

How many children die because they were born into families that had no prayer of feeding them, for lack of population-control information or contraceptives? Guess yourself -- the WHO does not. Only one thing is sure: more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today.

And how many die of the disease called national politics? How many were put into their graves because of warfare among parties, regions, and tribes that forced their parents to live worse than animals in the field, as their babies died? What killed these children and their parents -- bacteria, our unconcern, or leaders who are called "Your Excellency" when they come to preen at the United Nations? Most often, I suppose, all three.

The United Nations -- a great opportunity arises for it. Surely it does not need another politician, diplomat or civil servant to become the next secretary general, a job opening soon. It needs a scientist or physician of renown, to lead in the war without end. A man or woman wise, strong and true enough to do that who could also handle with honor the marginal diplomatic role of the secretary general.

In a short time, a search committee could produce a new kind of secretary general, one who would keep our attention on children who die every year before they are 5, on their parents and on

their killers -- viral, economic or human. Say a month -- which would be 30 times 40,000, give or take a few thousand.

A. M. Rosenthal is a senior columnist for the New York Times.

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