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Health

The leading killer of the world’s poorest children might not be what you think

Flickr: Cramford Learmonth

For the first time in history, the number of children who don’t make it to their fifth birthday has dipped below 6 million a year. When I was born in the early 1990’s, the number of under-five children who died each year was over 12 million.

The progress achieved in the past two decades has been remarkable, largely thanks to increased investments in improved health services, new and low-cost vaccines and innovations in health treatments.

However, the global community still has a lot of work to do to ensure that every child’s health needs are met. Most newborn and child deaths are entirely preventable and treatable, and are a result of ill-health, malnutrition or lack of access to health care. This makes children prone to easily fall sick with pneumonia, diarrhea or measles, and results in 16,000 preventable childhood deaths each day.

These are mind-boggling statistics, but I bet you didn’t know that pneumonia takes the medal for being the NUMBER 1 infectious killer of children under 5.

As today marks World Pneumonia Day, let’s break this disease down a little further.

WHAT IS PNEUMONIA?

Pneumonia is a serious respiratory infection where fluids fill the lungs and disrupt how oxygen is absorbed. It takes the lives of more children in the developing world than any other condition. In 2013, a child died from pneumonia every 30 seconds. And this year, more than 900,000 children worldwide will die.

Despite available interventions, this condition is responsible for 17% of child deaths worldwide — more than malaria, tuberculosis and HIV combined. This infectious disease is also hard to diagnose at an early stage. Often, parents don’t realize their child has fallen ill with pneumonia, and when they do, reaching a doctor or healthcare worker may be difficult.

WHERE DOES PNEUMONIA STRIKE THE HARDEST?

99% of child deaths due to pneumonia occur in developing countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

51% of Under 5

HOW CAN WE REDUCE CHILDHOOD DEATHS FROM PNEUMONIA?

Because pneumonia can be caused by a number of viruses and bacteria, preventing and treating pneumonia requires using several approaches. The good news is that these proven interventions currently exist, and do not require major advances in technology.

1. Antibiotics

Anti-biotics Image: Flickr: Sparky

The antibiotic Amoxicillin can reduce deaths from pneumonia by 36% to 42%. This treatment costs less than 50 cents per child.

2. Clean Cookstoves

Clean Stove Image: DFID

Many homes in developing countries burn unclean fuel sources, such as wood or coal, for energy. This results in increased indoor air pollution and puts children at a higher risk for pneumonia. By improving household stoves, this not only helps reduce cases of pneumonia but also saves time and reduces fuel costs.

3. Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding.jpgImage: UNICEF Ukraine

By promoting exclusive breastfeeding during the first 6 months of life, and ensuring continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary feeding, this reduces pneumonia in children by 23%.

4. Vaccines

PATH global healthImage: PATH Global Health

Effective vaccines are available for the most common bacterial causes of pneumonia. However, when children are not vaccinated, they are disproportionately killed before they can be immunized.

5. Safe drinking water and basic sanitation

Water.jpgImage: Eduardo Fonseca Arraes

Clean water and access to sanitation reaps massive health benefits. Not having access to toilets and sanitation can lead to a vicious cycle of infection, stunted growth, cognitive impairment, and poor immune responses.

6. Handwashing with soap

Hand washing PhotoImage: World Bank Photo Collection

A “do-it-yourself vaccine”, handwashing reduces incidents of pneumonia by up to a third.

7. Adequate Nutrition

Kuwaiti NGO Helps Reduce Malnutrition in Darfur Kuwaiti NGO Helps Reduce Malnutrition in Darfur
Image: UN Photos

When children grow up with adequate nutrition, child deaths are reduced by 6%, including from pneumonia.


Pneumonia shouldn’t be a forgotten killer. Simple solutions are available, and countries need to step up and provide children with these life-saving resources so they can survive AND thrive.

This will help set the foundations for healthier and more prosperous lives for generations to come.