Increased action against pneumonia could save 9 million children

A health worker examines an infant who has successfully recovered from pneumonia. Photo by: ©UNICEF Ethiopia / 2018 / Demissew Bizuwerk / CC BY-NC-ND

BARCELONA — As the first Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia gets underway in Barcelona, Spain, advocates are calling for a boost in efforts to tackle the disease and avert the deaths of 9 million children in the next 10 years.

According to analysis by Save the Children and Johns Hopkins University, scaling up pneumonia treatment and prevention services could save 3.2 million children under the age of 5 from pneumonia, and a further 5.7 million from other diseases such as diarrhea, sepsis, and measles.

Without effective intervention, the highest death tolls are likely to be in Nigeria, India, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ethiopia.

"This analysis shows that collective action to protect children from pneumonia could really boost national efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal for child survival,” said Leith Greenslade, coordinator at the Every Breath Counts Coalition, in a statement, adding that governments and international development agencies must act urgently.

Pneumonia — an acute respiratory infection that affects the lungs — is the leading infectious cause of death among children under 5. In 2017, it was responsible for 15% of deaths in children of that age. The SDGs aim to end preventable deaths of children under 5 by 2030.

Advocates at the forum said that improving access to vaccinations and medication, tackling malnutrition, and addressing pollution could drastically prevent the number of pneumonia-related deaths.

As the current coronavirus outbreak shows, timely detection and prevention are key, said Henrietta Fore, executive director at UNICEF. “It means making the right diagnosis and prescribing the right treatment. It also means addressing the major causes of pneumonia deaths like malnutrition, lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics, and tackling the more difficult challenge of air pollution.”

According to the World Health Organization, almost 50% of pneumonia deaths in children under 5 are caused by household air pollution.

Lisine Tuyisenge, a senior pediatrician in Rwanda, recommended that other countries replicate Rwanda's "green village" concept. Implemented by the government and partners including the United Nations Development Programme and U.N. Environment, this involves creating model villages that address poverty and environmental-related problems, including improving nutrition and air quality. Tuyisenge said this contributes to reducing childhood pneumonia and other childhood illnesses.

Meanwhile, Quique Bassat Orellana, a research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and chair of the forum, argued for increased funding for research and innovation that would help drive policy change.

The forum — which is being hosted by nine health and children’s organizations — aims to put pneumonia at the top of health agendas, mobilize donors, and push for concrete action.

Commitments from governments on the development of national pneumonia strategies are expected, alongside an announcement from vaccine producer, Serum Institute of India, on a more affordable pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.

About the author

  • Rebecca Root

    Rebecca Root is a Reporter and Editorial Associate at Devex producing news stories, video, and podcasts as well as partnership content. She has a background in finance, travel, and global development journalism and has written for a variety of publications while living and working in New York, London, and Barcelona.