The dominant image of third world children this year has been the face of a hungry African child. But now comes word of a different image: one of hope. Three years ago, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) began predicting that a ``child survival revolution'' was possible in the third world within 12 years if political leaders galvanized available resources and technologies.
Last year, UNICEF reported the first glimmerings that the revolution had begun.
Now, in its annual ``State of the World's Children 1986'' report for 1986, UNICEF asserts that the revolution is well under way -- and accelerating -- in more than 40 nations including the world's two most populous, China and India.
Officials see it as a third world safety net being spread under society's most vulnerable members: children under the age of five.
Economic recession, unemployment, drought, exploitation, neglect, and other obstacles still keep the safety net away from countless millions of children. Faster economic development is also needed to let children make the most of the lives the ``revolution'' is said to be saving.
But UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Richard Jolly, during an interview in London, insisted that he saw ``hard evidence'' of a ``near miracle'' in health care and in changing parental attitudes.
For years now, about 45,000 children under five -- 15 million a year -- have died daily from malnutrition and other ``easily preventable diseases,'' UN officials say.
Today, Dr. Jolly says, child mortality rates are beginning to fall -- dramatically -- in China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Brazil, Nigeria, Indonesia, Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.
The lives of ``well over 1 million children a year'' are being saved by two cheap, simple techniques alone, says UNICEF Executive Director James P. Grant -- immunization and tiny salt-and-sugar packets to fight the dehydration that afflicts millions of poor children. Despite the continuing African famine, he says, it is now conceivable that 7 million lives a year can be saved by 1990.