News / Health

Health Advocates Say Pneumonia Preventable

A Rwandan child gets vaccinated at a clinic
A Rwandan child gets vaccinated at a clinic

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Vidushi Sinha

The global health organization that works to combat pneumonia in children says the lung disease is the single leading killer of young children in the world, more than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia says pneumococcal pneumonia kills 4,000 children each month, mostly in developing countries. Health organizations and advocacy groups recognized November 12 as World Pneumonia Day to raise awareness about the killer disease.

In Rwanda, children can now be vaccinated against pneumococcal diseases. And as a result, health professionals say  pneumonia infections have dropped.

Francoise Kanani is a nurse at a health center in Rwanda. "Ever since the introduction of this vaccination program, we have realized a decrease in cases. We can often have a whole month without a single case," she said.

After vaccinating children in Rwanda and Gambia, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have selected 15 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia to distribute the pneumonia vaccine.

The World Health Organization estimates that 98 percent of the deaths from pneumonia occur in developing countries.

Dr Peter Hotez is the president of Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. "Now we re going to have this global assault to really whittle away (reduce) at those 1.6 million deaths due to pneumonia, and I have a lot of optimism that that's going to make a big impact," he said.

Dr. Hotez says children in poor countries are more likely to die from bacterial pneumonia. "One - they have no immunity to these infections because they have not been exposed to it previously. Second, they have difficulty clearing their air ways in general, and third, is the fact that you have these viral infections circulating around which weakens these kids and makes them more susceptible to infections," he said.

Pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under five so health experts recommend that mothers breast feed their babies as a way to bolster their immunity.

"The child will have fever, cough, and you will see the young child breathing very rapidly. You see what are called retraction(s) in the chest. You see the muscles of the rib cage moving very aggressively. The child is trying to squeeze every bit of extra air into his or her lungs. It is very devastating to watch," said Dr. Hotez.

Dr. Hotez says vaccines and antibiotics could dramatically reduce the number of child deaths from pneumonia. Some people mark World Pneumonia Day by wearing blue jeans as a sad reminder of the color of a child's lips as he gasps for air in an advanced stage of pneumonia.

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