Pneumonia, though treatable, is world's biggest killer of children, U.N. says

December 17, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

Pneumonia is now the biggest killer of children in the modern world, resulting in 3.6 million deaths annually, but in most cases the cure is a five-day course of antibiotics that costs only 25 cents, according to a U.N. report released yesterday.

The means of stopping pneumonia and dozens of other childhood diseases are now "available and affordable," the report said, but countries are not making the necessary investments in basic medical care, sanitation and education.

"The present neglect," the report said, "is a scandal of which the public is largely unaware."

Each week, the report found, a quarter of a million children die of malnutrition and diseases that are either curable or preventable.

"No famine, no flood, no earthquake, no war has ever claimed the lives of 250,000 children in a single week," said James P. Grant, executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund. "Yet malnutrition and disease claim that number of child victims every week."

To end the "age-old evils" of disease, malnutrition and illiteracy and to save up to 4 million young lives a year would require an investment of $25 billion a year -- less than Americans spend on beer and half what Europeans spend a year on cigarettes, the report said.

For the past 10 years, UNICEF has been monitoring the condition of children throughout the world. The report said less than 10 percent of the $40 billion spent annually on international aid is devoted to basic human needs -- rudimentary health care, nutrition, water and sanitation, primary education and family planning. The bulk of aid is now financing national debts and military expenditures in developing countries.

Yet when even minimal efforts are made to address basic problems plaguing children, "remarkable progress" can been charted, the report said.

Ten years ago, for example, diarrheal disease was the biggest killer of the world's children, claiming nearly 4 million young lives each year. Now, there are 1 million fewer deaths each year associated with dysentery and other intestinal ailments, thanks largely to the promotion of a simple, nearly cost-free home remedy known as oral rehydration therapy.

The method, largely unknown outside medical circles until recently, helps ensure that children and babies who have severe diarrhea will not die of dehydration.

Perhaps the most spectacular progress in caring for children in the past decade has been made in the prevention of polio, the report said.

As a result of a 10-year effort by the World Health Organization and other medical groups, polio immunizations have leaped to 85 percent worldwide.

"A decade ago, when only about 20 percent of children were immunized, polio struck at the lives of more than a half million children a year," the report said.

If trends continue, the report said, polio may become the second major disease, following small pox in 1977, "to be eradicated from the face of the earth."

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