46,900 children died, but who paid attention?

MIKE ROYKO

September 30, 1992|By MIKE ROYKO

There was this squib of a news story that came over the wires the other day. It wasn't much longer than a baseball box score or an interview with a rock star about his next tour. It said:

"Boston (AP) -- The death rate among Iraqi children rose dramatically in the months after the gulf war, largely because of an outbreak of diarrhea caused by disabled water and sewage systems, researchers reported today.

"In the first seven months of 1991, about 46,900 more children died than would have been expected, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine.

"It said the death rate for children under 5 was triple that before the war.

"The study was conducted by Dr. Alberto Ascherio of the Harvard School of Public Health and other researchers from the United States, England, New Guinea and Jordan. It was paid for by the United Nations Children's Fund.

"The researchers said they worked independently of the Iraqi government."

That's it. About 25 lines of type.

But then, it's old news. The war has been over for a year and a half. The parades have ended, the yellow ribbons have been taken down, and the last proud, chest-thumping speech has been made.

Still, if you like numbers, 46,900 is an interesting figure. And you can play with it in different ways.

For example, there are baseball and football stadiums that have a seating capacity of about 46,900.

So we might try picturing one of these stadiums with every seat occupied by a child 5 years old or younger.

Try it. Close your eyes and imagine Comiskey Park in Chicago or Shea Stadium in New York with a little kid in every seat.

That's a lot of noisy kids.

Now, imagine that somebody pulls a switch and sends a jolt of electricity into the seats and every one of those 46,900 noisy kids dies.

That would be a lot of dead kids. So you'd better open your eyes, since it isn't a pleasant thing to imagine.

Or we can look at it another way. The biggest hotel in the world is in Las Vegas. It has 4,000 rooms.

So if you put 11 kids in each room, you'd have stuffed the place with 44,000 kids. Put the extra 2,900 in the grand ballroom.

Let's imagine that someone pushes down on a plunger, setting off a huge explosion that blows the hotel away, really flattens it.

Now that would rate more than a squib of a story. It would be front-page headlines all over the world: "Hotel explodes, killing 46,900 children."

Which just shows that bad water leading to diarrhea and other intestinal disorders doesn't have the dramatic impact of an explosion, although the results are the same.

Or we can play with the number another way.

The average daily attendance at Disney World is 72,233.

Of course, all 72,233 people aren't there at the same time. Some come in the morning and are gone by mid-afternoon. Some come in the afternoon and leave when the big parade is over.

So let's take a guess and say that at about 2 o'clock on an average afternoon, there are about 46,900 people there, many of them children.

And a terrible thing happens. A giant meteor comes roaring out of space and lands smack dab on Disney World, leaving nothing but a giant crater. (Scientists say something like that could happen, but it's a zillion-to-1 shot, so don't change your vacation plans.)

Now that would be a super-big story. It would stun the world and would go down in history as one of the greatest disasters.

Which shows that if you want to make history, get hit by a meteor instead of stomach cramps.

Which also shows that there is more to modern wars than that which the Pentagon allows us to see on CNN.

What we see on TV is kind of fun, all those videos from high above of targets far below suddenly blossoming like tiny flowers when a bomb lands. The graphics are not yet as good as Super Mario 4, but maybe by the next war, they'll catch up.

And we see the parades, the strutting politicians, and the cheering sports bars that have become cheering war bars.

But what we don't see is described in the full report by the doctors who made this study:

"The destruction of the supply of electric power at the beginning of the war, with the subsequent disruption of the electricity-dependent water and sewage systems, was probably responsible for the reported epidemics of gastrointestinal and other infections.

"These epidemics were worsened by the reduced accessibility of health services and decreased ability to treat severely ill children."

In other words, we don't see those invisible but deadly killers in the water or the children screaming because their stomachs hurt and their fevers are raging. And we don't see them weaken, fade, then die.

But who would want to see a downer like that, anyway?

In a classic understatement, the doctors concluded: "War is never good for health. But the full effect of war and economic sanctions on morbidity and mortality is difficult to assess, and the number of civilian casualties caused indirectly is likely to be underestimated.

". . . During the gulf war, it was suggested that by using high-precision weapons with strategic targets, the Allied forces were producing only limited damage to the civilian population.

"The results of our study contradict this claim and confirm that the casualties of war extend far beyond those caused directly by warfare."

Forty-six thousand nine hundred kids. Give or take a few tots.

So what color ribbon do we wear for that triumph?

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