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Audrey Hepburn's Spirit Still Heals The World's Children

By John Morgan, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

While Audrey Hepburn won her first Academy Award for Roman Holiday at age 24 and starred in such screen classics as Breakfast at Tiffany's, Funny Face and Sabrina, her most important roles were as a mother and a tireless advocate for the world's children.

And while her life of glamour and fame still dazzles the world, few may understand how passionately the screen legend felt about her work with the preeminent institution for children's health, UNICEF.

"She was in Holland during the war and she never forgot the feeling of people coming with hope, food, a blanket, an outstretched hand," says Sean Ferrer, Hepburn's son and author of the recently released Audrey Hepburn, An Elegant Spirit. "She never forgot that feeling. She never forgot eating her first piece of chocolate in seven years. That's why she wanted to contribute and give back with her work with UNICEF."

For 57 years, UNICEF's non-partisan mission has been to ensure that every child has the opportunity to survive and thrive. Whether supplying health clinics, providing improved nutrition or protecting children orphaned by AIDS, UNICEF is dedicated to creating a world for children that is free from poverty, disease, violence, exploitation and discrimination. 

More than 10 million children under the age of five die each year, most from preventable causes. Approximately 2.8 billion people are poor, living on less than two dollars a day. Of these nearly half are living on less than one dollar a day. And since most of these are children, poverty is stealing their chances for healthy physical and mental development. 

'Goodwill toward children'

And there may be no better time to join UNICEF's crusade than the holidays -- a magical time for the world's children.

"Christmas was a special time for my mother because it is the time of year when people begin to treat each other the way she hoped people would always treat each other," says Ferrer, who will contribute proceeds from the book to the Audrey Hepburn Children's Fund. "It was certainly the way she treated others and especially children."

And Ferrer is continuing his mother's legacy of helping the world's children. His mother's fund is partnering with UNICEF to educate 120 million children - two-thirds of whom are girls - and who yet do not have access to quality education.

"One of the first things we have experienced with education, especially in sub-Saharan countries, is that you are immediately able to change the course the terrible AIDS epidemic there," Ferrer explains. "The minute you have education you have the opportunity to prevent the spread of further cataclysmic disease.  Already there are nearly 20 million children without parents."

But HIV/AIDS is now impacting children even more directly and with equally tragic results.

"More than half of all new HIV infections strike people under the age of 25," says Marissa Buckanoff, assistant director, public relations for the United States Fund for UNICEF. "Infant and child death rates have risen sharply, with girls being hit harder and younger than boys."

Although HIV/AIDS is not a major killer of children under five, it does have a significant impact on the chances of child survival.

"Statistics show a steady rise of child mortality in the countries worst affected by HIV/AIDS," Buckanoff reports. "In addition, the millions of children that have been orphaned by AIDS are left with diminished chances of reaching adulthood. And HIV is eroding both basic health systems and traditional community coping mechanisms. It must be stopped in order for the world to have any real chance of making sustainable progress in child survival."

And according to Ferrer, we can and must do better.

"We have not been able to sufficiently curb the daily rate of death amongst children which was 40,000 in my mother's day," Ferrer notes. "Now it's down to 35,000. Ten years and 10% reduction is not enough for me. We need to do much better than that because unfortunately the United States does not look favorably. We represent 50% of the developed world's economy and on a per capita basis, Holland, Italy and France all are ahead of us in terms of financial support."

Gifts of health

UNICEF cites the following significant priorities in improving the health of children worldwide:

  • Immunizations - UNICEF is the world's largest purchaser of vaccines, procuring more than 40% of all vaccines used in the developing world. "Yet more than 30 million children are not immunized either because vaccines are unavailable, because health services are poorly provided or inaccessible, or because families are uninformed or misinformed about when and why to bring their children for immunization," Buckanoff states. "It costs only $17 to provide vaccines for protection against six diseases and it's estimated that we can save about 2.5 million lives each year through immunization.

  • Early Childhood Care - UNICEF supports a wide range of programs that ensure children in the critical first years benefit from good health care, sound nutrition, clean water and decent hygiene. According to UNICEF, malnutrition is implicated in more than half of all child deaths worldwide. Almost one-third of children in developing countries are malnourished - 150 million are underweight for their age.  "Each year, six million children in developing countries die from causes that are either directly or indirectly attributable to malnutrition," Buckanoff reports. "And millions more are left crippled, vulnerable to illness, and intellectually disabled."

And it is these kinds of statistics that Ferrer says caused his mother great sadness, a fact that may be surprising to so many of her adoring public.

"I talk about her sadness," Ferrer says. "But I think if you're a normal, compassionate person and you really understand what's going on in the world today you can't help but feel a certain sadness. After the world had sworn there would never be another Holocaust, here she was in these camps in Somalia with tens of thousands of people and children dying and the world was just standing by and not doing enough. I think she felt a great sense of betrayal and I think this had an effect."

Ferrer seems to share some of his mother's sadness and all of her passion for helping children who are suffering and in need. And like his mother, he also believes that the holidays are about peace on earth and goodwill toward each other.

"People who are poor and starving are not ugly and we should not turn our back on them," Ferrer says. "Let's get closer to these people and help them this century. We can't expect people to raise billions of dollars, but you can write your congressman and tell them what matters to you. Suggest that maybe the best way for a peaceful future is to provide more hope for others. If we don't treat our future generations with love, compassion and respect - if we don't celebrate them - then what are we as a society?"

If you would like to give the gift of health to the world's children this holiday season, visit UNICEF on the web or call 1-800-4UNICEF.

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Created: 12/27/2003  -  John Morgan & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.
Reviewed: 12/27/2003  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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