Deadly measles and coronavirus outbreaks are on the rise. But where is the outrage for pneumonia?

Boosting efforts to fight pneumonia could avert nearly 9 million child deaths from pneumonia and other major diseases, a new analysis has found ahead of the first ever global forum on childhood pneumonia.

Boosting efforts to fight pneumonia could avert nearly 9 million child deaths from pneumonia and other major diseases, a new analysis has found ahead of the first ever global forum on childhood pneumonia. Pneumonia kills more children than any other infection, claiming the lives of over 800,000 children under five every year. Almost all of these deaths are preventable.

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Following recent deadly outbreaks of measles in Samoa and coronavirus in China, leading health and children’s organisations are now warning that nine million children could die of pneumonia in the next decade. Malnutrition, air pollution and lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics are among the contributing factors. But pneumonia doesn’t grab the headlines. It’s a forgotten health epidemic, despite last year a child dying of pneumonia every 39 seconds. Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. Although some types of pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines and can be easily treated with low-cost antibiotics if properly diagnosed, tens of millions of children are still unvaccinated – and one in three children with symptoms do not receive essential medical care.

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UNICEF NZ Executive Director Vivien Maidaborn says that UNICEF vaccinates nearly half of the world’s children under five, but more needs to be done to protect children against this killer disease. “If we don’t act now, the consequences for children will be disastrous. It is unacceptable that children continue to die from pneumonia when this disease is preventable and treatable,” says Ms Maidaborn. “Strong primary health care is vital for every child. We know that pneumonia can be prevented if children are vaccinated, if they have access to clean water, good nutrition and breastmilk, and limited exposure to air pollution,” says Ms Maidaborn.

In New Zealand, Māori and Pacific children have a much higher risk of contracting pneumonia compared to other New Zealand children. According to the Asthma Respiratory Foundation NZ, Māori children are four times more likely to die from pneumonia than non-Māori, while Pacific children are 5.6 times more likely.

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On January 29-31, UNICEF and eight other leading health and children’s organisations (ISGlobal, Save the Children, Every Breath Counts, “la Caixa” Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, USAID, Unitaid and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance) are hosting world leaders at the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia in Barcelona, the first international forum on childhood pneumonia. Vaccination is the most cost effective and proven way to protect a child’s life. A more affordable PCV vaccine from the Serum Institute of India is being announced at the Global Forum which will reduce deaths from pneumonia. Additionally, governments in high-burden countries are committing to develop national strategies to reduce pneumonia.

Boosting efforts to fight pneumonia could prevent nearly nine million child deaths from pneumonia itself and other major diseases. According to a modelling by Johns Hopkins University, scaling up pneumonia treatment and prevention services can save the lives of 3.2 million children under the age of five. It would also create ‘a ripple effect’ that would prevent 5.7 million extra child deaths from other major childhood diseases at the same time, underscoring the need for integrated health services.

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Children who die from pneumonia are concentrated in the world’s poorest countries and it is the most deprived and marginalised children who suffer the most. Over the next decade, deaths are likely to be highest in Nigeria (1.4 million), India (880,000), the Democratic Republic of Congo (350,000) and Ethiopia (280,000). Ms Maidaborn said 410,000 children could be saved this decade in the East Asia and Pacific regions if pneumonia interventions were introduced. “These efforts would make a huge difference for children in the Pacific.” Outdoor air pollution contributes to 17.5 per cent – or nearly one in five – pneumonia deaths among children under five worldwide, according to a study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME-GBD). “Every child deserves to be protected from toxic air and preventable diseases. Pneumonia deserves significant media attention and a greater public response,” says Ms Maidaborn. Donate via Unicef to help get more children immunised against preventable diseases.