Pneumonia – a preventable disease – kills more children globally than any other infection!! These were the screaming headlines on this year’s World Pneumonia Day – 12th November, following the release of the latest data on the global burden of the biggest killer of little children- pneumonia.
The new analysis by UNICEF and partners revealed that pneumonia claimed the lives of more than 800,000 children under the age of five globally in 2018, or one child every 39 seconds, even as Nigeria recorded the highest-burden with an estimated 162,000 deaths or 443 deaths per day (18 deaths every hour),
Four other countries – India (127,000), Pakistan (58,000), the Democratic Republic of Congo (40,000) and Ethiopia (32,000), along with Nigeria were responsible for more than half of child pneumonia deaths. The analysis produced by UNICEF based on the WHO and Maternal and Child Epidemiology Estimation Group, MCEE, interim estimates and the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation estimates for 2018, found that most deaths occurred among children under the age of two, and almost 153,000 occurred within the first month of life.
Sounding the alarm about the forgotten epidemic, six leading health, and children’s organisations – UNICEF, ISGlobal, Save the Children, Every Breath Counts, Unitaid and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are calling for concrete commitments from Nigeria and other high-burden countries and international donors to tackle the menace of pneumonia. In a joint call to action, the organisations urge governments of the worst-affected countries to develop and implement Pneumonia Control Strategies to reduce child pneumonia deaths; and to improve access to primary health care as part of a wider strategy for universal health coverage.
They also urge richer countries, international donors and private sector companies to boost immunisation coverage by reducing the cost of key vaccines and ensuring the successful replenishment of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; and to increase funding for research and innovation to tackle pneumonia. Acting UNICEF Representative in Nigeria, Pernille Ironside, stated: “Pneumonia is a deadly disease and takes so many children’s lives – even though this is mostly preventable. And yet, this killer disease has been largely forgotten on the global and national health agendas. We can and must change this.
“Increased investment is critical to the fight against this disease. Only through cost-effective protective, preventative and treatment interventions delivered to where children are – including especially the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach – will we be able to save hundreds of thousands of lives in Nigeria.” Funding available to tackle pneumonia lags far behind other diseases. Only 3 percent of current global infectious disease research spending is allocated to pneumonia, despite the disease-causing 15 percent of deaths in children under the age of five.
The biggest risk factors for child pneumonia deaths in Nigeria are malnutrition, indoor air pollution from the use of solid fuels, and outdoor air pollution. Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. Children with immune systems weakened by other infections like HIV or by malnutrition, and those living in areas with high levels of air pollution and unsafe water, are at far greater risk.
Pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines, and easily treated with low-cost antibiotics if properly diagnosed. But tens of millions of children are still going unvaccinated – and one in three with symptoms do not receive essential medical care. In 2018, 71 million children did not receive the recommended three doses of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), putting them at a higher risk of pneumonia.
Globally, 32 percent of children with suspected pneumonia are not taken to a health facility. That figure rises to 40 percent for the poorest children in low- and middle-income countries. Children with severe cases of pneumonia may also require oxygen treatment, which is rarely available in the poorest countries to the children who need it.