Preserving the world's families


POLITICAL conventions, even this summer's stage-managed rituals, turn the national gaze more inward than usual.

This year's gatherings, with themes tested on focus groups rather than built on principles, did little to encourage Americans to lift their eyes to wider horizons. But with Labor Day heralding time to get back to work, buzzwords will now clash with real-world scenarios.

Despite their differences on abortion, Republicans and Democrats both tried to capture the family-values flag. Now, the parties' representatives on Capitol Hill will try to agree on foreign-aid appropriations that could literally make the difference between life and death for families in the world's poorest countries.

High on the agenda for a returning Congress is reauthorization of a foreign-aid bill for the fiscal year beginning October 1.

Plenty of wasteful, misused or environmentally damaging projects have been funded by foreign aid. But donors have learned a lot from their failures -- and in the case of child-survival programs the results are breath-taking.

Only 30 years ago, one child in four died before age 5. Today, nine of every 10 children live to celebrate their fifth birthday.

35,000 die daily

Despite dramatic progress from such simple steps, today and every day 35,000 children will die around the world from preventable causes -- from diseases like measles for which they could have been immunized, from diarrheal dehydration, from common respiratory problems or even from simple malnutrition.

But to keep this awful toll in context, it's important to note that a generation ago, the child death rate was 70,000 a day.

In South America, a rural health program in the Andes used U.S. aid to cut its child death rate in five years, as compared to neighboring areas.

In India, a similar project spurred a drop in infant death rates from about 10 in every 100 live births to about two in 100 live births. These projects depend on simple, inexpensive methods -- immunizing children, teaching parents to recognize the symptoms of severe dehydration and how to use oral rehydration salts, impressing on poor, rural families the importance of sanitation and on mothers the vast advantages of breast-feeding.

Saving lives for 25 cents

Now the challenge is to keep reducing the number of deaths. But that takes sustained efforts at education, shoring up public-health systems in poor countries and providing supplies, which are often as simple as life-saving doses of antibiotics that cost as little as 25 cents.

It also means funding family-planning programs that help families space children at least two years apart (which gives each infant a better chance of surviving) and helps provide the reproductive health care that prevents deaths from pregnancy-related causes.

In its most recent report on the well-being of children, UNICEF highlighted the importance of maternal health to the survival of children, more than a million of whom are orphaned each year when their mothers die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth.

While some 600,000 women die each year, many thousands of other mothers survive their complications, but with debilitating handicaps that affect their ability to provide for and nourish their children.

The irony is that while virtually no member of Congress would criticize the earmarking of child-survival funds, as foreign-aid bills have done since 1984, House Republicans have eagerly attacked and, as of last year, effectively decimated family-planning funds.

Memo to Republicans: If you care about saving children's lives, you have to care about saving their mothers' lives too. It's that simple.

In a shrinking foreign-aid bill -- last year's appropriations were around $12 billion, the smallest in a decade and less than 1 percent of the federal budget -- the temptation to divert child-survival and family-planning funds is great.

A case in point is a proposal by Sen. Paul Coverdell, a Georgia Republican, who wants to use some humanitarian and development funds to boost an international narcotics-control program that has already received a big increase, despite a spotty record of success.

But if Republicans and Democrats really believe their family-values talk, they will abandon the House's damaging war PTC against family planning and recognize the crucial link between the survival and health of mothers and that of their children.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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