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January 27, 2011

Tools Available to Raise Healthy Children, say Advocates

by Lisa Schlein

Child health advocates attending the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland say more can and must be done to save the lives of millions of children in developing countries that die from preventable diseases each year.   The advocates participated in a special panel at the Forum on Raising Healthy Children.  

Children in developing countries are exposed to many health risks.  The World Food Program reports nearly 50 million children a year face malnutrition and hunger.  It says 200 million children are stunted, which robs them of the chance to lead a normal life.  

WFP Executive Director, Josette Sheeran says children under two who are deprived of adequate nutrition never recover from that loss.  She says without specific interventions, children lose a chance at a healthy life.  

"And this is not only an issue of compassion, but also one for finance ministers and presidents and prime ministers," said Sheeran. "The loss to GDP has been estimated by my program-but by others at 6 to 11 percent of GDP that a country loses if children are unhealthy and bring that into adulthood.  And, we know from one economy alone that equals over $20 billion a year.”  

Sheeran says countries now have to tackle the double problem of undernourishment and obesity, which can lead to early onset of diabetes in children.  But, she adds the news is not all grim.  Progress is being made and more can be made.

The Head of the World Health Organization, Margaret Chan, agrees and is upbeat about the advances in child health.  She says under-five mortality has gone down to 8.1 million, the lowest in 60 years.

She says vaccines against preventable diseases, such as measles and polio are saving millions of lives.   And, she notes new vaccines are coming onto the market to protect children against diarrhea and pneumonia.

Dr. Chan says insecticide treated bed nets have cut child deaths from malaria by half in Africa.

Co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda Gates, says one of the best ways of bringing down child deaths is by investing in women.

“We know that mothers make an incredible difference in the lives of their newborn babies and in their children," she said. "We know that woman, if you invest and gets an extra dollar or two in income, she plows it right back into her family in terms of health and nutrition and education.  So, the women are key in this.”  

Lead singer of U2 and Co-Founder of ONE Campaign and RED Campaign, Bono, says money can accomplish a lot, if used in the right way.  Since 2004, he says 6,000 children’s lives are being saved every day.  This is being done with the use of government aid and public participation.  

“I think you have to show the results to keep the public involved, but the public does have to keep the feet to the flames of their officials," said Bono.

The panel discussion ended with the surprise visit of Bill Gates and British Prime Minister, David Cameron.  Both men listed polio eradication as one of their top priorities.  

To show their seriousness, Gates said his foundation would contribute $100 million to the global polio eradication campaign.  The British prime minister said his government would double its commitment with a $60-million donation.