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The numbers boggle the mind. The world today is inhabited by more than 6.3 billion people, and by 2015 the figure will reach roughly 7.3 billion, an increase of a billion in a little more than a decade, according to the United Nations. Although the overall rate of growth has been declining, populations in the developing regions are expected to rise rapidly.

What needs to be done to stabilize population growth and eliminate poverty? The U.N., which designated July 11 as World Population Day, says part of the answer lies in promoting women’s health and education. Appropriately, the theme for this year focuses on improving women’s reproductive health as a way to reduce poverty.

Japan has its own population problems: the continuing decline in the birthrate and the accelerated rise in the average age of the population. The challenge for this nation is twofold. While reinforcing efforts to address its own problems, it should bolster cooperation with developing nations to help promote their own population programs. To that end, Japan needs to provide more aid, more expertise and more equipment.

Women have internationally recognized rights concerning reproductive health, such as freedom to decide whether to have a baby or not. The U.N. Fund for Population Activities says the fight against poverty will not succeed unless more resources — financial, human and material — are channeled into efforts to enhance women’s reproductive health.

Women’s health and education are tied closely to economic growth. According to the UNFPA, countries that have invested in these areas have achieved faster growth than those that have not, because access to better health services and educational opportunities makes it easier for women to decide how many children they want to raise.

U.N. statistics indicate that a woman dies every minute in a developing region in connection with pregnancy or birth. The UNFPA estimates that if health care for pregnant women were improved, half a million women and 7 million babies could be saved each year. In this regard, the U.N. is pushing a long-range program to make reproductive health services available in all needy countries by 2015. This program, adopted by the world population conference held in Cairo in 1994, has been making progress, says U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. He is calling for stepped-up global efforts to achieve the goal.

The UNFPA says reproductive health services are most urgently needed in the area of AIDS, as some 14,000 people become infected with HIV every day. In 2001, an estimated 40 million people around the world were HIV-positive, according to the World Health Organization. The deadly disease is spreading most rapidly in Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan regions.

The 14th international conference on AIDS, which opened in Spain earlier this month, has called for a global contribution of $10 billion a year toward stamping out the pandemic. Japan, the largest contributor, should continue to meet expectations. It must also turn its attention at home because AIDS is spreading among young people here, as well.

Japan’s population has continued to grow slowly over the years. According to the government, the number as of June stood at 127,310,000, a gain of 270,000 from a year earlier. However, the number of children aged 15 and under has continued to decline. Only one in seven people is a child — the lowest ratio among the industrialized nations. In the United States, Britain and France, for instance, the ratio is about one to five. Conversely, the number of the elderly — those aged 65 and over — reached a record 22,720,000 in September 2001. At this rate, one in four will be an elderly person in 2015.

These are disturbing trends which, if left unchecked, will create serious social and economic problems, such as a drop in the young labor force and an increase in the social-security burden. Indeed, the future of Japanese society may depend largely on how these demographic trends develop. The task for the government is to map out, without delay, a new population program geared to our graying society.

Meanwhile, nations of the world must keep up a joint campaign to defuse the population bomb. A key element in this global struggle, again, is reproductive health. As the UNFPA points out, increased financial and physical assistance in this field will save many more lives, stabilize population growth, check the spread of AIDS, reduce poverty and promote gender equality.

The world’s population passed the 6 billion mark just three years ago. With the number rising at an alarming pace, the U.N.’s message carries great weight. What is needed is clear enough: a speedup in global efforts, including family planning, to tame the runaway growth of population.

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