Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland
World Health Organization

United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Children Plenary Address

New York City, 9 May 2002

Secretary general 
Ladies and Gentlemen,

A child is born and begins her journey through life. Her parents live on less than US$ 2 per day. Like other children in the poor half of our world, there is a one in five risk that she will have died before she is five.

She, and millions of others like her, have no choice. They march into life like soldiers into killing fields.

Almost 11 million dead each year. Many more than the numbers who have died from wars during the past decade.

We must break the silence. We must confront the complacency. Deaths of poor children are not "inevitable". They should not be happening. They are a blot on our conscience.

Heads of State, Ministers and senior officials made great commitments to change at the World Summit for Children in 1990.

So are we delivering?

Child mortality in many countries around the world has fallen. We have shown the impact of combating polio, and immunizing children against other childhood diseases. We have seen the effectiveness of oral re-hydration and basic hygiene in saving lives.

But the progress over the last decade is nowhere near good enough. We do not reach the children who are most in need.

We are failing these children because we do not transform our knowledge into action reaching them.

Now, we must do much more to bring knowledge and services to people. We cannot expect them to come to us in search of it.

At the Global Consultation on Child and Adolescent Health and Development in Stockholm in March, we set out the strategies needed for a new initiative for child health. At the Monterrey summit later that month, we saw a global commitment to support the Millennium Development Goals and to provide additional financial resources to achieve these goals.

We now have the tools and the pledges.

This is good, but it is not enough.

We need to focus, more, on the most vulnerable children - the newborns. Many conditions that result in a newborn dying can easily be prevented or treated. We need a combined approach to the mother and her baby during her pregnancy, to have someone with knowledge and skills with her during childbirth, and effective care for both after birth. This does not call for sophisticated and expensive technology. It means having functioning health facilities that can handle complications in the first weeks of life and during the delivery and post-partum period.

A newborn needs a healthy mother.

We need to focus, more, on the 1.2 billion - one fifth of the global population - who are teenagers. They have survived childhood and are rapidly becoming adults. This is when patterns of behavior take root and lifestyle choices are made, choices that will affect their chances of along and healthy life. Tobacco, diet and alcohol choices made in these years have massive implications: at least two thirds of premature adult deaths result from behaviors developed at this time.

HIV/AIDS is - essentially - a disease of children and young people. The majority of those who are newly infected with HIV are less than 24 years of age. Infection rates are increasing. As I have been speaking, fifteen young people have been infected with HIV: five a minute.

We can confront this pandemic, and turn it back.

To succeed, we need to focus, on the realities of teenage lives, rather than on our views about how young people should live. This applies when we are working with teenagers to reduce pregnancy rates, HIV infection rates and the incidence of unsafe sex. They may need help. We cannot shy away from talking about it.

It means providing adult support to young people as they handle the thoughts, feelings and experiences that come with growing up. Helping them acquire skills for developing relationships and dealing with sexuality provides a foundation for responsible adulthood. It helps promote good health. It contributes to a healthy environment for the next generation of young children.

Mr. Chairman,

We can point to powerful progress for child health in the last decade: alliances within which the different parties forget their differences and pursue agreed goals using common strategies.

But we now must scale up our actions. We must work harder to reach and empower poor people and their children - especially their newborn babies and those who are in their teens. Only then can we truly say that we are preparing our world for the generations of the future. Only then will we be seen to confront inequity and promote social justice. Only then will we create the foundation for lasting peace.

Thank you.