There are sharp limits to how far western banks and nations can go in forgiving the debts of poor countries without drying up lenders' willingness to keep lending money to such countries.

Consequently, it's easy to argue with last week's recommendation by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) that the world simply forget about demanding payment on 50 percent of its loans to poor countries over the next five years.But while UNICEF's remedy may be flawed, the ailment it has diagnosed is so serious that it should prod the consciences of world leaders to seek other solutions.

UNICEF's prescription was prompted by the sharp setback that has been suffered by global efforts to save children all over the world from easily avoidable diseases and premature death. It's a setback that UNICEF attributess to the rising cost of debt repaynments among poor nations and falling commodity prices.

Until recently, there had been encouraging progress in improving the health of youngsters around the world. At the beginning of the 1980's, less than 5 percent of the Third World's children were immunized, and diseases such as whooping cough, measles, and tetnus were killing up to five-million children a year. But immunization efforts were stepped up to the point where half of the children in poor countries were immunized, saving the lives of some 1.5 million of them a year.

This progress, however, has turned into retreat. By one account, as many as 14 million children are dying each year from common illnesses and inadequate nutrition. The average weight of young children - a vital indicator of normal growth and nutrition - is falling in many countries.

It's no coincidence that more children have started dying at a time when their governments have started spending less money on health and education programs. Nor is it a coincidence that such spending cutbacks have taken place at a time of falling commodity prices and the increased difficulty that poor nations are having in paying off their loans.

By all means, as many such debts should be at least delayed as can be done without discouraging lenders from making future loans to poor countries. But let's also look at other methods for coming to grips with the problem, methods such as revamping foreign aid.

The majority of children dying in those poor nations could be saved by vaccines costing only 50 cents a shot and by 10-cent glucose and salt drinks to prevent the dehydration that kills those with acute diarrhea.

This situation suggests an item for the agenda of the next summit meeting of world leaders. How about seeking agreements to spend less on helping poor nations arm themselves and more on helping those same nations get the vaccines and food needed to keep their children from dying?