AMMAN / GENEVA / NEW YORK, 19 March 2003 - UNICEF today issued a stark warning that the most vulnerable of Iraq's children may not have the strength to survive the impact of war.
A day after UN international staff left
Iraq for their own safety, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy catalogued
what her agency had done - and what
it had run out of time to do - to improve the survival chances of Iraq children.
"We delivered therapeutic food for
more than 400,000 malnourished children," Bellamy said. "But
there are more than 1 million malnourished children in Iraq.
We immunized virtually every child under age five against measles. But we did not have time to reach the 6-to-12-year-olds who missed measles immunization when they were younger. We did a lot, but we had hoped to do more."
Bellamy said there was no way of knowing how many children might perish during war or its aftermath. She said that would depend on how long a war lasts and how it affects civilian infrastructure. But she said the days and weeks ahead would be difficult for children.
"Conflict could very well have disastrous
consequences for Iraqi children," Bellamy said. "Malnourished
children, unimmunized children, children who are
displaced from their homes - all these children are at very high risk." She noted that children make up half the population of the country.
"Much has been done to boost the resilience of the most vulnerable children. But still the questions remains, will they be strong enough to survive?"
With one-quarter of children under the age of five chronically malnourished, and some 60 per cent of the population dependent on government food rations, UNICEF has been supporting major efforts to bolster children's health and well-being.
In recent weeks, 1000 metric tonnes of
high-protein biscuits and therapeutic milk has been distributed across
the country to hundreds of thousands of
malnourished children. Four million children were vaccinated against polio in February, and half a million children under five were immunised against measles.
UNICEF also worked with the Government to overhaul back-up generators at water and sewage treatment plants to ensure that safe water will continue to flow even if primary power is knocked out. About a third of the water supply network in Baghdad has been backed up in this way.
UNICEF also said it had positioned thousands
of tonnes of emergency supplies in Iraq and neighboring countries to help
mount a rapid response. The items
include essential medicines, water purification tablets, therapeutic milk, and other life-saving supplies.
Despite all this, Bellamy warned that Iraqi children will remain highly vulnerable during a war and its immediate aftermath. "Children will die in this war. That's a fact. The question is how many children we can protect. That has got to be a priority for all of us now."
Following the withdrawal of UN internationals from Iraq on Tuesday, UNICEF's work in the country is now in the capable hands of its committed and experienced national staff. UNICEF has about 160 national staff members in Iraq.
Arriving in Jordan from Baghdad, the
UNICEF Representative for Iraq, Carel De Rooy, spelled out the dangers
ahead. "The children of Iraq are facing many
hazards. We know that they remain extremely vulnerable because of widespread and chronic malnutrition, bad water and disease. Conflict could cause a major deterioration in their already-poor living conditions, with devastating results."
De Rooy also emphasized the long-term impact that conflict has on children's psycho-social health and on their education. "We know from long experience how damaging war is for children's emotional well-being, their sense of confidence and trust. This trauma is amplified when children are forced from school. So we're very concerned about these longer-term issues, as well as their immediate safety."
For now, De Rooy will coordinate UNICEF relief operations from the UNICEF office in Amman. He said the major things UNICEF will be watching for are the stability of the power grid and water supply system, availability of food in all parts of the country, and potential outbreaks of disease.
"Right now the best we can do is keep a close eye," De Rooy said. "And be ready to respond."
For further information, please
Geoff Keele, UNICEF Iraq (in Amman): (962-79) 692-6191
Wivina Belmonte, UNICEF Media, Geneva: (41-22) 909-5509
Alfred Ironside, UNICEF Media, New York: (1-212) 326-7261
For interviews in the region, write directly to the UNICEF NewsDesk in Amman: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on UNICEF's work in Iraq, visit the Iraq Press Room online at: http://www.unicef.org/media/iraqpressroom.htm
UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary
contributions of individuals, foundations, businesses, and governments.
Contributions to UNICEF's ongoing
support for Iraq children can be made at www.unicef.org