Accessibility links

Agencies Turn to Simple Solutions to Combat Pneumonia

  • Lisa Schlein

To mark World Pneumonia Day, a new report published on behalf of the Global Coalition against Child Pneumonia says simple solutions exist that can prevent the deaths of one-million children every year from pneumonia, the world's leading killer of children under five.

Pneumonia often is called the silent killer because few people and policy makers are aware of the huge toll it takes. The statistics on this preventable and curable disease are stark.

Health agencies report pneumonia kills a child every 20 seconds, 4,300 child deaths every day. They say globally, pneumonia kills more children each year than HIV, measles and malaria combined, and that children living in developing countries are up to 400 times more likely to die of pneumonia than a child living in the United States.

World Health Organization (WHO) Medical Officer Olivier Fontaine says a combination of three actions is particularly effective in protecting, preventing and treating pneumonia.

He says exclusive breast-feeding during the first six months of life is an important and easy way to help protect children from pneumonia and other diseases.

"The second one is reducing indoor air pollution. In many developing countries, women and children spend a lot of time indoors, cooking with open fire, without ventilation. And, therefore, they breathe in lots of particles that irritate their lungs and makes them more vulnerable to infection,” said Fontaine. “The third action to protect against pneumonia is hand washing. It is well known for diarrhea, but also for pneumonia. It has been shown to reduce the spread of bacteria that cause pneumonia."

For the first time, the report tracks global progress against pneumonia. It evaluates the effectiveness of the pneumonia prevention, protection and treatment programs of the 15 countries with the most child pneumonia deaths.

These countries, which are in Africa and Asia, are responsible for nearly three-quarters of all pneumonia deaths.

The report finds immunization is key to preventing pneumonia. It notes vaccines are a safe and effective tool. Unfortunately, many of the poorest countries are unable to afford these life-saving tools.

Chief Executive Officer of the GAVI Alliance, Helen Evans, says it is the mission of her agency to save children's lives by increasing access to immunization in poor countries.

She says GAVI has provided an older vaccine to more than 60-million children with great success. She says newer vaccines against the leading cause of pneumonia - pneumococcal disease - are available in rich countries. But, she says the overwhelming majority of poor children in developing countries do not have access to them.

"So far, only two developing countries, Rwanda and Gambia, have been able to introduce pneumococcal vaccine as part of their routine immunization program," said Evans. "In the case of Rwanda, although it is only 12 months on, a bit more than 12 months on since it was introduced; the country now has a coverage rate for pneumococcal vaccine of around 90 percent, which is very impressive, particularly considering how much of Rwanda is rural and remote."

Evans says the GAVI Alliance, with its partners, plans to introduce pneumococcal vaccines in more than 40 countries by 2015. But she warns this goal will not be reached without significant new funding.

She says GAVI has launched a campaign to raise $4 billion by 2015. She says more than half of the money will go toward pneumonia vaccines.