Erik Schelzig
September 6, 2007
Associated Press Newswires

A new campaign headed by former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will seek to drum up awareness and support for efforts to reduce childhood mortality around the world.

More than 10 million children die each year before reaching age 5, and three in five deaths are considered preventable through low-cost medical intervention, according to the Save the Children charity.

Frist, who was a physician before becoming a politician, announced the creation of the "Survive to 5" campaign on Thursday night at Save the Children's 75th anniversary benefit in New York.

"We have a huge problem that hasn't gotten better over the last 10 years, in spite of the fact that there are solutions that are cheap, that are available, that have been proven to work in the past," Frist said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Frist declined to estimate how much money it would take to put a significant dent in childhood mortality rates around the world. Save the Children currently spends about $400 million annually, he said.

A current effort in Congress would authorize about $5.9 billion over five years for maternal and child health interventions, Frist said.

Frist said he will work with everyone from school children to business executives to persuade them that the goal of reducing mortality rates is achievable. The campaign show them "what the problem is and how they can help inexpensively, and the strategies that are available today to deliver these inexpensive solutions," he said.

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, Frist said the vitamin A treatments he gave babies cost only a few cents over the course of a year.

"We know that when you look at saving the life of a child, a $5 bed net impregnated with insecticide is lifesaving ... we know that a full set of nine childhood vaccines, the whole series costs about $17 dollars," he said.

Frist said he hopes the campaign can gather enough momentum to challenge political attitudes about the issue, just as public sentiment helped spur Congress into increasing annual federal funding for AIDS research from about $200 million a decade ago to nearly $4 billion a year today, he said.

"That's the kind of dramatic change you can see if you have the support of the American people," he said. "If the American people understand the magnitude of the problem -- and there is something that can be done about it that is within their power if they act -- they act."