Ensuring that no child dies for want of the right antibiotic

Kokeb Negussie gives pneumonia medication to her two-month-old son, Moges in Ethiopia. There are approximately 150 million cases of child pneumonia every year, and only a fraction of these are treated with antibiotics. Photo by: Getachew / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

Last year, 1 million children around the world died of pneumonia. But perhaps the greater tragedy is that we have very effective tools to prevent and treat most cases of pneumonia, and the great majority of these children need not have died. All it would take is political will and a little imagination.

Pneumonia causes more deaths among small children than any other infectious agent, yet vaccines exist that protect against the leading causes of pneumonia — pneumococcal and haemophilus influenzae type b — and increased rates of breastfeeding and simple measures to reduce indoor air pollution from cooking provide further protection against infection.

For those children who do become sick with pneumonia, antibiotics can cure most cases and oxygen treatment can also prevent death.

Nov. 12 is World Pneumonia Day and we should use that occasion to turn our attention to making sure that the children most at risk of death from the disease actually receive the appropriate interventions.

Seven out of every 10 children who die from pneumonia live in 15 developing countries in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Despite great progress in reducing child deaths from pneumonia in many of these countries, there are still too many children who do not have access to vaccines, who are not breastfed, who are exposed to indoor air pollution and who do not receive antibiotics. This has resulted in very little change in the number of child deaths in countries such as Nigeria in recent years, and child pneumonia deaths are actually increasing in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad and Cameroon.

The antibiotic treatment for childhood pneumonia recommended by the World Health Organization and UNICEF is amoxicillin in the child-friendly dispersible tablet form. Sandoz — the generics division of global pharmaceutical giant Novartis — has decided to take a global leadership role in increasing access to this treatment, and we are committed to reaching at least 500,000 of the world’s most vulnerable children in the first year of a multiyear partnership with the United Nations. The first shipment of 100,000 packs of the Sandoz 250 mg amoxicillin dispersible tablet is currently on its way to Africa as a result of this partnership.

But the needs are much greater than that.

There are approximately 150 million cases of child pneumonia every year, and only a fraction of these are treated with antibiotics. Sandoz is committed to working in partnership with governments, NGOs, the private health sector and civil society to ensure that no child dies from pneumonia for want of the right antibiotic.

Product supply is only part of the solution. Success will also depend on governments and donors increasing health investments in the leading causes of child death and ensuring that the most vulnerable populations are reached. With more than half of all child deaths now occurring in fragile, often conflict-ridden settings, this will require ever more innovative methods of identifying sick children and distributing essential medicines.

Despite the scale of the problem, I firmly believe that we are entering a new era where the benefits of public-private partnerships in the fight against killer diseases are well-understood, and that with an increased effort from all we can win the fight against the leading infectious disease killer of small children and end preventable child deaths by 2030.

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About the author

  • Richard francis

    Richard Francis

    Richard Francis is global head of Sandoz, the generic drugs division of Novartis. He is a member of the Swiss pharmaceutical company's executive committee. He joined Sandoz after a 13-year career in U.S. biotechnology firm Biogen Idec, where he led the development of several drugs to treat multiple sclerosis. Prior to that, Francis worked for Sanofi in the United Kingdom.