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PORT-AU-PRINCE, 24 February 2004 – UNICEF said today that the violence in Haiti has sent the country’s impoverished health and education systems into a spiral that is threatening the lives of thousands of Haitian children.

Speaking from Port-au-Prince, UNICEF’s representative in Haiti, Ms. Francoise Gruloos, said she is deeply concerned that thousands of Haitian children can no longer access basic public services.

“Children are always the most vulnerable in conflict situations,” Ms. Gruloos said. “And Haiti’s children were already extremely vulnerable. We need to make sure these children are protected and not forgotten amidst the civil disorder.”

UNICEF experience in conflict situations shows that malnutrition and disease are the major causes of child deaths during armed conflicts. When food is scarce or water is contaminated during war, children usually suffer most. Wars also erode health services and other social networks, and destroy food sources and livelihoods.

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy urged all parties to safeguard hospitals and schools. “Schools should be treated as zones of peace,” said Bellamy, speaking from New York. “Especially in times of crisis, schools can provide a safe haven for children. Haiti’s children are depending on adults to protect and preserve their future.” Schools are being closed in several areas, UNICEF noted.

Even before the crisis, the situation for Haitian children was among the worst in the world, with more than one in 10 Haitian children dying before the age of five. More than one-fifth of children are born underweight, only about half receive routine immunization, and almost 40 per cent of children under five suffer from acute respiratory infections.

Cases of young children victims of rape are being reported by health services and human rights organizations.

UNICEF, in close consultation with WHO/PAHO and UNFPA, is seeking to negotiate access through rebel blockades to deliver supplies of medical equipment and drugs to health clinics that cater to pregnant and nursing women and young children. It is also planning to transport tons of nutritional dry-food, as well as shelter equipment for thousands of families who have lost their homes, or were forced to flee the fighting.

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