A Symbol of Hope and Urgency

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If you are walking near Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in New York City or along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills and happen upon a magnificent, gleaming crystal snowflake hovering overhead, please take a moment to consider why it is there. It is not just another seasonal ornament, and it is not meant to simply dazzle. The UNICEF Snowflakes are reminders of our shared obligation to do whatever we can to help the world's most vulnerable children survive.

As the holiday giving season approaches, and we illuminate these beacons of hope, I am wrestling with a perpetually challenging question: How do you get more Americans to pay attention to the life-and-death struggle of children in developing countries?

Notice that I'm not asking how to get Americans to care about this issue. Because I believe Americans do care and are deeply generous. But I don't believe many of them are aware of just how atrocious the toll of poverty and disease is for so many young children around the globe -- and that they have the power to do something about it.

The outrageous reality is that 24,000 children under age five die every day from easily preventable causes. We're not talking about terminal or untreatable illnesses here. These children are dying from malnutrition, a lack of safe drinking water, and from diseases like pneumonia, malaria, and tetanus. In other words, they are dying even though the means to save them -- the food, water, vaccines and medicines -- already exist.

There is a damaging misconception that the work of saving children in developing countries is doomed to a cycle of failure and recrimination. The problems in countries like Bangladesh and Sierra Leone are overwhelming, the suffering and death inevitable -- or so we sometimes hear.

In a word, nonsense.

Consider this: Despite a crippling recession and the continuing consequences of a global food crisis -- not to mention wars, natural disasters, and disease -- we learned earlier this fall that the worldwide daily number of child deaths had dropped to its lowest level ever, about 24,000 a day. That is down from 25,500 three years ago. Perhaps most important is that decline in child deaths is actually accelerating. This means that the efforts of many committed parties to save children's lives are clearly paying off.

To grasp the real significance of these numbers, you have to go back about 50 years. In 1960, more than 50,000 young children died every day from preventable causes. Since then, the daily toll of child mortality has been cut by more than half -- even as the global population has increased. That's millions of young lives saved each year.

The UNICEF Snowflakes are emblems of how far we have come in the fight for child survival -- but, even more importantly, of how far we have yet to go. They are symbols of hope, but they are also symbols of urgency.

How can anyone view the preventable deaths of 24,000 children each day as anything other than a colossal global scandal? There is simply no excuse for so many children to perish every day in a world with such wealth and resources.

The simple reality is this: we know exactly how to stop these deaths. We know that vaccines often costing just pennies will protect children from deadly diseases like polio and measles; that therapeutic foods will stave off malnutrition; that ensuring access to clean drinking water will thwart diarrhea. These solutions are simple, proven, and inexpensive. What's needed is the public and political will to make sure they are put to wider use. If enough people join this cause, 24,000 daily child deaths can become 18,000, then 12,000 -- and, one day, zero.

For information on how you can help, please visit To learn more about the UNICEF Snowflakes, go to