News / Health

UN Calls for Action on Pneumonia in Children

Abdulle Ibrahim, holds his son Adam Ibrahim at the International Rescue Committee, IRC, clinic in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, July 29, 2011.
Abdulle Ibrahim, holds his son Adam Ibrahim at the International Rescue Committee, IRC, clinic in the town of Dadaab, Kenya, July 29, 2011.
Lisa Schlein
The United Nations is observing World Pneumonia Day on November 12 by calling on country leaders to spring into action to reduce child deaths from pneumonia. U.N. and other health agencies say the world has the means to save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives from this preventable disease.

Pneumonia kills more children than any other disease in the world. The U.N. Children’s Fund reports every 25 seconds a child dies from pneumonia. It kills 3,400 children a day or 1.3 million a year. By this calculation, pneumonia accounts for 18 percent of the 6.9 million child deaths a year.   

As with many other diseases, the main victims are the world’s poorest, most marginalized children. They are the ones who cannot afford the treatments and vaccines that could save their lives. UNICEF spokeswoman, Marixie Mercado, says 90 percent of all child deaths from pneumonia occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

“But, it is easily preventable and it is easily treatable," she said. "Basically, the evidence shows that if the poorest households had the same basic interventions that are available to the richest households, millions of children would live instead of die, due to a totally preventable disease.”

Pneumonia can result from vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough. About 85 percent of the world’s children receive these life-saving vaccines. The poorest do not. UNICEF is calling for universal vaccine coverage so all children, even the poorest, are protected.  

Streptococcus pneumonia and Haemophilus influenza type b are two major causes of bacterial pneumonia. They can be prevented through PCV and Hib vaccines. Most low- income countries have introduced the influenza type b Hib vaccines against pneumonia. But, UNICEF’s Mercado says the introduction of PCV vaccines in low-income countries is proceeding at a slower pace.   

“The same is true with treatment," she said. "Right now, less than a third of children with pneumonia received antibiotics in developing countries. Just recently, a report by the U.N. Commission on Life Saving Commodities estimated that over 1.5 million children could be saved if amoxicillin - an antibiotic that costs 30 centimes per treatment dose, were more widely available.” 

Children in poorer countries are at higher risk of getting pneumonia, a respiratory disease, than those in richer countries because of indoor air pollution. Low-income households burn wood, dung and coal for cooking or heating, with poorly ventilated fires and stoves. Overcrowded homes also contribute to higher levels of childhood pneumonia.

Health experts say a number of preventive measures other than vaccines and antibiotics are effective in staving off pneumonia. These include safe drinking water and improved sanitation, as well as the promotion of practices such as exclusive breastfeeding and use of clean cook stoves to reduce indoor air pollution.

They say frequent hand washing with soap and water reduces the incidence of pneumonia by 23 percent. Unfortunately, they note hand washing is not routinely practiced in most developing countries, especially among the poor.

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