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World: WHO Launches Children's Initiative

The World Health Organization (WHO) is planning a new program aimed at improving the health of children around the world by cleaning up the environments where they live.

Washington, 18 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The World Health Organization is taking steps to address urgent concerns about the impact of an unhealthy environment on the world's children.

According to statistics gathered by the WHO, a polluted or unsafe environment contributed to the deaths around the world of more than 4.7 million children under five in the year 2000.

The WHO's initiative, called the "Healthy Environment For Children," is being supported by the heads of several United Nations' agencies, royalty, health ministers, many nongovernmental organizations, and the European Commission. It plans to focus on helping local communities clean up water supplies, improve air quality and determine safe ways to dispose of chemicals and toxins.

Dr. David Nabarro, the executive director on sustainable development and healthy environment at the WHO, told RFE/RL in a telephone interview from Switzerland that one-quarter to one-third of children around the world die of disease-related causes due to factors in the environment in which they live. He says that means the WHO has to pay far more attention to the environment than it has so far.

Nabarro says the WHO's initial efforts will focus on decontaminating local water supplies, improving community sanitation and hygiene, helping clean up polluted air and disinfecting areas that have been exposed to chemicals. There will also be programs to eliminate or control the number of insects that carry disease, including mosquitoes and ticks.

Eventually, Nabarro says, the programs will expand to include information on matters such as the dangers of second-hand tobacco smoke and the ways that HIV/AIDS is spread, including sharing or playing with infected needles.

According to Nabarro, many countries from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary, and Georgia, attended the formative meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa, and strongly expressed their support of the plans. He says these countries have come to understand the impact the environment is having on the children who live there.

Nabarro says the WHO does not intend to devise a global program that "functions according to tight rules." He says the focus will instead be on helping local communities and organizations decide what is the most pressing environmental threat to children in their neighborhoods and villages, then determining the best ways to contribute to improve the situation.

He says WHO resources and experts will be able to help in programs that would include devising new water sanitation programs, cleaning up chemically toxic areas and depleting the insect population. He says the focus is to ensure that the places where children live, play, and learn are healthy.

Nabarro says the initiative is a leading priority in the WHO, and that the organization will build upon its extensive past experience with other similar global alliances fighting polio, tuberculosis, and malaria to quickly implement the new initiative. He says the WHO is committed to having programs in place within six months.