When Abe Pollin, owner of the Capital Centre, read a 1982 newspaper article stating 40,000 children die of malnutrition every day, he called the reporter to make sure the figure wasn't a misprint. It wasn't, so he decided to do something about it -- to "try and make a difference."

Yesterday the Washington Advisory Council for UNICEF held a luncheon of media and business people to focus attention on the problem and to ask for help. The council is chaired by Pollin and Washington Post Co. chairman Katharine Graham. "My idea," said Pollin, "was to pick an area that we in Washington could relate to -- a place in dire need where children are dying. Where our dollar could make a difference . . ."

The Karamoja region in Uganda was selected by the advisory council, which plans to raise $200,000 for the area. It is hoped, Pollin said, that this amount will save the lives of about 10,000 children. The money will provide direct food and medicinal supplies via UNICEF workers already stationed there.

Pollin spoke of his "dream" that "by our success we will be the role model for other cities. So they can pick an area that is definitely in need." Pollin plans to visit the area soon and to make at least one return visit.

Ted Koppel of ABC's "Nightline," among those attending the session at The Washington Post, described how he and his colleagues found themselves personally handing out provisions at a Bangladesh refugee camp -- and the desperate crowd forced them to retreat and surrender their supplies to the strongest. The point, said Koppel, is to give supplies to those -- namely UNICEF -- who can assure that the food gets to the right places.

"I'm stepping out of this neutral journalist's role, which I value so highly, to support it," he said, then quoted John F. Kennedy -- who in turn was quoting Dante: "The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who maintain neutrality in times of crisis."

Stephen Joseph, UNICEF's special coordinator for child health and survival, said that one-half of the world's malnourished children could be saved with "technology at low cost." Most children, he said, don't die from malnutrition so much as from a "combination of malnutrition and infectious diseases."

Technology exists in the simple forms of vaccination and salt solutions that can prevent diarrhea (the biggest killer of malnourished children). The budget, he said, can be as low as $5 to $7 a child per year.