So many kids don't have to die, Hopkins expert says

December 18, 1992|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Staff Writer

A Baltimore public health physician who advises the United Nations praised the commitment of military forces to Somalia yesterday, saying the world community should intervene more quickly in the future when civil chaos threatens to trigger widespread disease and starvation.

"One of the problems with Somalia is that we let it get so bad," said Dr. Carl Taylor, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a special adviser to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)."In the future, we have to take action of a preventive kind."

Dr. Taylor spoke at a gathering of children's advocates and health experts at the Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The event was timed to coincide with the release of a UNICEF report that found hunger and disease kills 250,000 children worldwide each week -- and that the vast majority of the deaths are preventable.

Providing all children with decent nutrition, health care, education and clean water, the report said, would cost only $25 billion a year, less than Americans spend on beer or Europeans spend on wine.

Some 3.5 million children die annually of pneumonia, the report found, making it the single biggest killer of the young. But in 80 percent to 90 percent of the cases, the ailment could be cured with a five-day course of antibiotics costing a quarter.

Diarrheal diseases is the second biggest killer of children, claiming 3 million lives annually. Half of those children could be saved with a Hopkins-pioneered treatment called oral rehydration therapy, which costs 10 cents per treatment.

"It's an obscenity, it's a scandal that when we know how to do so much, not enough is done," said Dr. Taylor. "It's wrong, morally wrong not to carry through, not to implement the things we know how to do."

In Somalia, clan warfare exacerbated famine and prevented relief supplies from reaching its victims. The decision to send troops, Dr. Taylor said, was "a breakthrough."

"If we do this right," he told a reporter, "then it will give the U.N. Security Council more confidence to do this in more difficult situations." But Dr. Taylor cautioned that the same approach might not work everywhere -- in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for example.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes told the gathering that the UNICEF report came "at a very propitious time" for influencing United States policies.

"I think there's the possibility of a major breakthrough," said the Maryland Democrat. When the wife of the newly elected president of the United States was head of the Children's Defense Fund, "it gives you some reason to hope."

The United States was among 159 countries to sign the 1990 World Summit for Children, which called for a one-third reduction in child mortality by the year 2000.

But Mr. Sarbanes said the White House ignored the World Summit for Children Implementation Act, which died in Congress.

The act, which may be introduced again next year, called for spending an additional $600 million to $700 million a year.

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