NEW YORK, NAIROBI, GENEVA, 9 May 2002 - Every day 5,500 children die from diseases caused by consuming water and food polluted with bacteria, according to a new study released by three United Nations agencies.
This alarming figure, from Children in the New Millennium: Environmental Impact on Health, shows that children the world over are the greatest victims of environmental degradation, despite the great strides made over the past ten years in improving both children's well-being and the environment. The diseases largely influenced by this degradation, most notably diarrhoea and acute respiratory infections, are two of the leading causes of child mortality.
"We have made great strides over the last decade. Children are healthier today. There is more access to clean water. But these disturbing figures show we have barely started to address some of the main problems," said Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of UNICEF. "Far too many children are dying from diseases that can be prevented through access to clean water and sanitation."
The 140 page report, jointly produced by UNICEF, the UN Environment Programme and the World Health Organization (WHO), is being released as part of the May 8-10 UN General Assembly Special Session on Children. This landmark conference, attended by more than 60 heads of state or government and 170 national delegations, aims to place children back at the top of the world's agenda and foster more investment in essential social services for them. One of its main goals is to increase household access to hygienic sanitation facilities and affordable and safe drinking water.
40 Per cent of Environmentally-Related Disease Burden in Children Under 5
According to WHO, almost one-third of the global disease burden can be attributed to environmental risk factors. Over 40 per cent of this burden falls on children under five years of age, who account for only 10 per cent of the world's population. A major contributing factor to these diseases is malnutrition, which affects around 150 million and undermines their immune systems. Malnutrition and diarrhoea form a vicious cycle. The organisms that cause diarrhoea harm the walls of a children's guts, which prevents them digesting and absorbing their food adequately, causing even greater malnutrition - and vulnerability to disease.
"People are most vulnerable in their youngest years. This means that children must be at the centre of our response to unhealthy environments." said WHO Director-General Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland.
The report also identifies other major environmental problems directly affecting children, such as high levels of toxic chemicals and the degradation and depletion of natural resources. Lead in the environment - much of it from leaded gasoline - causes permanent neurological and developmental disorders in children. Millions of children work in agriculture, putting them at high risk of pesticide poisoning. Children are also disproportionately vulnerable to global environmental problems, such as the impact of climate change, the depletion of the ozone layer and the loss of the planet's biological diversity.
"I am convinced that we need to elevate children's environmental health issues on the international agenda, both through the General Assembly's Special Session on Children and then the World Summit on Sustainable Development," said Mr Klaus Töpfer, the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. "We should recognize that realising children's rights and managing environmental challenges are mutually reinforcing goals. We hope that the publication will inspire everyone who cares about children to take decisive action that will improve both their health and the environment."
Immediate Action Needed Across the Board
The report warns of low public awareness on children's special vulnerability to environmental health risks. Among the recommended actions, the report calls for increased national investment in early child care, including focusing on the immediate environments of children, like homes, schools, and communities. One notable success in many countries is the transition to unleaded fuel, which helps eliminate lead from the environment.
Through the report, the three UN agencies hope to raise the awareness of governments and non-government organizations on these problems during the UN Special Session itself, and at August's World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.
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