The number of child deaths in Africa could be halved by the year 2000 if government leaders would take a personal interest in promoting immunization programs, the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) has said.

"If the immunization program is handled under the personal leadership of the heads of state and governments of Africa, the health of children can be so improved that the 1980 child death rates will be halved by the year 2000," UNICEF director James Grant told a news conference in Addis Ababa on Friday.Speaking on the sidelines of the annual summit of the Organization of African Unity, Grant said that according to a U.N. study, the number of child deaths in Africa rose to 4.46 million in 1985 from 4.25 million in 1970.

But the latest available data indicated that child deaths had begun falling in the continent in 1986 and 1987, contrary to projections made in the study, he added.

Grant said there were 100,000 fewer child deaths in Africa in 1987 than in 1985 thanks to increased immunization against the main child killer diseases and greater use of re-hydration therapy to treat diarrhea.

"Today Africa is clearly committed to achieving the goal of universal child immunization by 1990, ensuring the survival of at least 75 percent of Africa's children under 1 year of age," the UNICEF director said.

He expressed hope that Africa could reduce its child mortality rate to 70 per live births by the year 2000.

Grant appealed to African leaders to dramatically accelerate child immunization programs, which he said were being financially supported by UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).