Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Children in Peril

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Children in Peril

Article excerpt

THE British economist Barbara Ward spoke of two environments--"the inner environment of biological health, full creativity and mental development and the outer environment of culture, stimulus and beauty, of shared affection and civil security". How can we bring about a harmonious development of these two environments for the world's children?

Developing countries are not a homogeneous entity. They are at various stages of socio-economic development, and are developing at various speeds, but they all face one most important problem--high infant and child mortality rates ad morbidity. In India for example the infant mortality rate is around 129 per thousand live births, more than 50 per cent of infant deaths occur within the first month of life, and low birth weights are found in almost a third of all births. For mothers under twenty years of age, the birth weights are significantly lower than for mothers from twenty to twenty-four years of age. The frequency of low birth weight increases with rising birth orders.

The story of infant and child health in the Third World is one of needless illnesses, of avoidable disabilities and of missed human opportunities. Acute diarrhoeal disease is the leading cause of death in children under one year of age. Malnutrition, overcrowding, lack of protected water supplies, poor environmental sanitation and low levels of education all act together in a vicious cycle.

When oral rehydration with glucose-salt mixture is instituted early, the death rate from this group of disorders can be brought down dramatically within a short period of time. One oral rehydration solution can now be used to treat most cases of watery diarrhoea, irrespective of the causative agent--virus, vibrio or bacterium. The goal is to make oral rehydration therapy a home remedy so that in the not-too-distant future the bulk of diarrhoeal diseases may be no more than a mere nuisance managed by the mothers themselves in their homes.

Many factors combine in the form of a chain reaction to perpetuate protein-energy malnutrition as one of the most endemic and intractable nutritional disorders of the Third World. These factors include deficient intake of food, diarrhoea and other common childhood infections, the attitudes and perceptions of mothers, traditions and taboos with regard to infant feeding practices, and poverty with all its ramifications.

This vast problem has still not been tackled effectively. The supplementary feeding programmes of the past few decades have had remarkably little success in bringing about lasting changes in the attitudes of mothers towards providing the best possible nutrition for their children. Protein-energy malnutrition is a problem thta calls for coordinated multi-sectoral action to deal with the convergence of poverty and unemployment, of disease and illiteracy accentuated by rapid population growth. These issues are in turn linked to cultural factors, economic distortions, human inequalities and social injustices. …

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