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Pneumonia kills one child every 39 seconds

©UNICEF/UN0280720/Hashimi AFP-Service

Over 800,000 children under the age of five died from pneumonia last year – that’s one child every 39 seconds.

The shocking figure comes from United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF), which says most deaths occurred in the under-2s, while almost 153,000 children died in their first month of life.

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. UNICEF is now heading an appeal by a group of health and children’s organisations for global action to tackle this deadly illness.

‘Richer countries must reduce the cost of vaccines’

In January ISGlobal, Save the Children, UNICEF, Every Breath Counts, Untaid and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance will deliver their message to world leaders at the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia in Spain.

They want governments in 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.

Richer countries, international donors and private sector companies will also be told they must 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.

‘A forgotten global epidemic’

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said: “Every day, nearly 2,200 children under the age of five die from pneumonia, a curable and mostly preventable disease. Strong global commitment and increased investments are critical to the fight against this disease. Only through cost-effective protective, preventative and treatment interventions delivered to where children are will we be able to truly save millions of lives.”

More children under the age of five died from the disease in 2018 than from any other condition. Some 437,000 children under five died due to diarrhoea and 272,000 from malaria.

Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children, said: “This is a forgotten global epidemic that demands an urgent international response. Millions of children are dying for want of vaccines, affordable antibiotics, and routine oxygen treatment. The pneumonia crisis is a symptom of neglect and indefensible inequalities in access to health care.”

‘Easily treated with low-cost antibiotics’

Just five countries were responsible for more than half of child pneumonia deaths: Nigeria (162,000), India (127,000), Pakistan (58,000), the Democratic Republic of Congo (40,000) and Ethiopia (32,000). [3]

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. The disease 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. 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.

‘We still have work to do’

Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said: “The fact that this preventable, treatable and easily diagnosed disease is still the world’s biggest killer of young children is frankly shocking. We have made strong progress over the last decade, with millions of children in the world’s poorest countries now receiving the lifesaving pneumococcal vaccine. Thanks largely to Gavi’s support, pneumococcal vaccine coverage in low-income countries is now higher than the global average, but we still have work to do to ensure every child has access to this lifesaver.”

Funding available to tackle pneumonia lags far behind other diseases. Only three per cent of current global infectious disease research spending is allocated to pneumonia, despite the disease causing 15 per cent of deaths in children under the age of five.

Leith Greenslade, Coordinator of Every Breath Counts, said: “For decades the leading killer of children has been a neglected disease and the world’s most vulnerable children have paid the price. It’s time for governments, UN and multilateral agencies, companies and NGOs to join forces to fight pneumonia and protect these children.”

Author: Simon Weedy

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