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In our opinion: Continue U.S. funding to end preventable childhood death

Published: Tuesday, May 15 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Somali boys walk in the Dagahaley refugee camp north of Dadaab, Eastern Kenya, 100 kms (60 miles) from the Somali border, Thursday Aug. 11, 2011.

Jerome Delay, AP

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It may not surprise many people to hear that a lot of children never make it to their fifth birthday in Africa and parts of Asia. We in the developed world have gotten used to seeing videos of starving children, as well as hearing pleas for financial help. We also may have convinced ourselves that the problem is overwhelming and hopeless, but that isn't true.

Thirty years ago, 14 million children under the age of 5 died each year worldwide. By far the majority of these died of easily preventable causes such as diarrhea or pneumonia, or from diseases that could have been treated or vaccinated against. At that time, UNICEF started what it called its "child survival revolution." Today, the number of children 5 and under who die is 7.6 million, according to 2010 figures, and dropping.

In other words, the world has preventable childhood death on the run. But it must keep the momentum going. Two events over the next few weeks will help focus the attention. More than anything, however, Washington cannot afford to let its financial support for preventative programs wane.

First the U.S. Agency for International Development has launched an initiative called, "Every Child Deserves a 5th Birthday." The awareness campaign calls on the public to post photos of themselves at age 5 on a website, 5thbday.usaid.gov/pages/Home.aspx. The site also contains a lot of information about the problem and the solutions.

Second, on June 12 officials from the United States, India and Ethiopia will join together with UNICEF at a meeting in Washington to initiate a "Call to action," a blueprint for the next phase in the battle against childhood death. Incredibly, experts now believe it will be possible to completely eradicate these preventable deaths within a few years.

This isn't a problem that requires experimentation or massive amounts of medical research. The answers are proven and simple. Children in the United States face a lot of dangers before age 5. For the most part, however, illnesses borne by mosquitoes, or unsanitary water and toilet facilities are not among them. Despite arguments over health care in this country, most children with pneumonia or diarrhea can find help. All it takes to help the children in impoverished nations achieve the same level of safety are some $4 mosquito nets, some cost-effective vaccines, clean drinking water, an oral rehydration solution supplemented with zinc and well-trained community health workers who can bring the needed supplies to people who otherwise have limited access to hospitals.

This may not be the ideal time to be talking about federal subsidies for the health care of people in far-off lands. Two things should be kept in mind, however. One is that poverty and widespread death tends to breed despair and hopelessness, which can lead to political unrest and the type of extremism that ultimately can strike Americans where they live. The other is that the type of funding needed to help this cause takes a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget.

Finally, it is important to note that Americans aren't carrying the burden alone. Nigeria and India account for one-third of the preventable deaths. They, along with other countries, are devoting substantial resources of their own to help with solutions.

The dramatic reduction in preventable childhood death is one of the great success stories of modern times. The United States can't afford to cut its contribution now that the goal of giving millions of children a fifth birthday is in sight.

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