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Innocence lost

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Today is Holy Innocents’ Day or Childemas, commemorating a bloody event that supposedly occurred shortly after Christ’s birth, Herod ordering the killing of all male children below the age of two, in an attempt to kill Jesus as well.

Historians say this massacre probably never happened, but Dec. 28 has taken on new meanings this year with the massacre of 20 children and six adults by a gunman in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, earlier this month, with mass media calling the event a modern massacre of the innocents.

Could such a horrible event happen in the Philippines?

My answer is yes.  We have too many guns floating around, with the Philippine National Police revealing last week they were going after owners of some 500,000 expired firearms licenses. Then there’s the problem of mental illness, the gunman in Connecticut, as with many other gunmen implicated in school shootings, suffering from mental illness, possibly schizophrenia. (Look up “Our Failed Approach to Schizophrenia” by psychiatrist Paul Steinberg in the New York Times.) We certainly have our share of people with such problems.

The US National Rifle Association, which fiercely opposes any form of controls on gun ownership, called on the government to allow armed security guards for schools, as well as arming teachers. In the Philippines we’ve had armed security guards for years stationed in just about any kind of commercial establishment you can think of, as well as homes. And my fear is that with so many armed guards and police around, the odds of a mass shooting happening just might come from one of these armed men, if they go berserk. We can only hope the security guard agencies and the PNP are screening their applicants very carefully for psychological disorders.

90,000 deaths

But I did want to focus more attention though on the many other innocents who die each year in the Philippines.  Of the 2.3 million children born this year, about 90,000 will die before the age of five, many of them from causes that can be prevented, and from curable diseases.

The most vulnerable period is the first month of life, with many of the infants dying from infections, including infections from unsanitary delivery conditions, and from congenital problems. The deaths from congenital problems are highest in the newborn but the survivors will continue to battle their problems throughout childhood.

Those who survive this first month continue to be vulnerable to infections, mainly respiratory and gastrointestinal, the risks higher in crowded living conditions, and from contamination during the preparation of infant formula and baby food.

The risks of dying from infectious diseases are slightly reduced as the child grows older, pneumonia remaining a leading cause of death. In addition, there are new problems, particularly cancers.  Leukemia is high up there among the leading causes of death.

Even more overwhelming are the deaths from accidents, with drowning as the leading cause of death in this category, followed by transport accidents, “exposure to forces of nature” and “event of undefined intent.” That last category made me very uneasy, knowing such “events” could include child abuse.

Among children aged five to nine, death rates fall drastically but the causes should still be cause for alarm.  Accidents shoot up as the leading cause of death, followed by pneumonias, cancers and dengue. The pattern is similar for children aged 10 to 14, except for the entry of tuberculosis into the top 10 leading causes of death.

As I mentioned earlier, most of these causes of death are preventable: immunizations, simple sanitary procedures from hand-washing to sanitary food preparation, and health education for parents and older children.

Parental responsibility is paramount here, and this includes spacing of children. There are statistics from the National Demographic Health Survey showing how immunization rates drop with the sibling order of the child; concretely, 85 percent of eldest children were immunized, compared with 64 percent for a child who is the sixth or more in sibling order.

This Christmas season we see so much parental neglect as well with the children left to roam the streets (or forced into the streets) to beg. The worst scenes are those of babies being carried piggyback on children only slightly older, darting from one car to another in the dark night.

Many of the causes of death are curable, if parents can afford the medical care. Cancers are financially catastrophic not just for the poor but even the upper classes. At least in this area, there are several foundations for children with cancer, that have tried to help, including providing psychosocial support for the children, and the families. Less attention is given to children with congenital heart anomalies. I have heard stories of such children who died while waiting for parents working overseas to earn enough money for the surgery.

Beyond RH

The Aquino administration is to be commended for pushing for the reproductive health law, but could be vulnerable to accusations of concentrating on birth control for the poor.  Family planning services must be part of strong child health and welfare programs. Beyond the conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs that focus on the poorest of the poor, there are still tremendous needs around child survival. The social welfare department could start by getting children off the streets—after Christmas many will remain still selling sampaguita and begging.

With elections around the corner, we should be holding politicians accountable for their programs for children. Because children can’t vote, the politicians might prefer donating for a cockpit, rather than a playground, unless parents begin to clamor for more children’s programs and facilities: playgrounds, day care centers, early childhood education.

We condole with the Americans over Newtown, but fail to recognize the many deaths of innocents here at home.  Last Nov. 23 the Inquirer had an article about several young deaths in fires. One was a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy who burned to death in San Juan. He had been left alone by a sister who needed to go to the police station to post bail for their father, detained because of involvement in a brawl.  The same article also mentioned a seven-year-old blind boy dying in a fire in Las Piñas a few days earlier. He had been chained to his bed by his parents for being “unruly.”

Watching the coverage of the funerals in Newtown was heart-wrenching as bereaved parents, teachers and friends recalled what each child had brought to their lives. We need to hear more of the stories of the thousands of children we lose in the Philippines, of innocents, and innocence lost.

This last long weekend of the year should be a time to appreciate the children we have and the joys they bring, but it should also be a time to think of what we can do, in the coming year, for other children and to stop the daily massacres of innocents.

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E-mail: mtan@inquirer.com.ph


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