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WHO Urges Action to Prevent Childhood Deaths from Environmental Hazards - 2003-04-07

The World Health Organization, WHO, is calling for urgent international action to prevent millions of children from dying every year as a result of environmental hazards. The WHO is dedicating World Health Day to healthy environments for children, to call attention to what it says are these needless, preventable deaths.

The World Health Organization says more than five million children, mainly in developing countries, die every year from diseases, infections and accidents related to their environments.

For instance, it notes two-million children under the age of five die from acute respiratory infections because the air they breathe is polluted. It says more than one-million children succumb to diarrhea because the water they drink is contaminated.

And, it says, one-million children, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, die each year from malaria, a disease that is spread by water-breeding mosquitoes.

WHO Director General Gro Harlem Brundtland said the biggest threats to children's health lurk in the very places that should be the safest - in their homes, schools, and communities. "If we have environments which are protected and where these vectors are not being given the opportunity to reach the children or to develop, we will have much lower incidents of these childhood killers," she said.

The WHO says children are not given the importance and the attention they need. It says they suffer from disease out of all proportion to their numbers. Children under the age of five comprise only 10 percent of the world's population, it says, yet they bear 40 percent of the global disease burden.

WHO Executive Director David Nabarro said most child deaths linked to the environment can be prevented. He said there are simple, inexpensive measures people can take which can make a huge difference. "They often simply call for changes in behavior and thinking at all times about that child as a being, a human being with a future, rather than that child as something that is to be ignored or given second or third place in the pecking order of affairs in the home" he said. "It is a mind-set, and to get that mind-set changed, we need a movement that puts children first and not second or third."

The World Health Organization says washing hands with soap and water can prevent the spread of germs. This simple act alone can reduce diarrhea by a third. Studies show that the number of deaths from malaria can be cut by a quarter or more when children sleep under mosquito nets treated with insecticide.

Another simple measure, it says, is providing good ventilation in homes. WHO says improved cooking stoves and clean household fuels decrease indoor air pollution, and this will cut down on the number of acute respiratory infections.