November 3rd, 2009
01:49 PM ET

Ramping up global efforts to defeat childhood pneumonia

By Andrea Kane
CNNhealth.com Producer

Last winter, I was told that my young daughter had walking pneumonia. Walking pneumonia? My mind, fueled by alarm, raced: What is walking pneumonia? (A very mild inflammation of the lungs.) Is it serious? (While it can become serious, it is not usually a problem and often heals on its own.) Is she going to be alright? (Of course.) She had very mild symptoms – a cough, a fever – and she wasn’t all that uncomfortable. Her pediatrician said some people let the walking pneumonia resolve itself (that’s how mild it is!), but that I might want to opt for a course of antibiotics. Not wanting to risk complications, and wanting to ease her symptoms sooner rather than later, I quickly agreed (antibiotic-opposed husband be darned). Thanks to access to medical care, my daughter was well within a couple of days; she and I quickly put the episode behind us.

The story ends differently for the more than 2 million children who die of pneumonia – walking pneumonia’s much more deadly cousin - every year. Save the Children, an international humanitarian organization, reports that pneumonia (which can be cause by bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites) kills more children under 5 worldwide than measles, malaria and AIDS combined. Pneumonia accounts for 20 percent of all deaths in this - the youngest and most vulnerable – age group. That’s one child dead from pneumonia every 15 seconds. The vast majority of deaths – 98 percent – occur in South Asia and sub-Sahara Africa.

A great many of these deaths could be prevented with existing inexpensive vaccines or treated with inexpensive antibiotics. But the families of children in the 68 countries most affected by pneumonia either don’t know about available vaccines and antibiotics, don’t have access to them or can’t afford them. And that’s a tragedy.

But the flip side of tragedy is hope. Global health authorities, including WHO and UNICEF, are recognizing November 2 as the first-annual World Pneumonia Day and have outlined a six-year action plan to take the first steps in beating back this beast. The GAPP plan, as it is called, includes education, protection, prevention and treatment efforts, targeting both governments and individuals.

Dr. Bill Frist (the former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and a trustee of Save the Children) and Dr. Richard Sezibera (Rwanda’s Minister of Health) write in this week’s edition of The Lancet, “… lives continue to be lost from this preventable and treatable disease, and, until recently, there was little outcry.”

I for one am glad there is new attention being brought to bear on an old adversary. No parent should have to mourn the death of a child from a preventable and treatable illness.

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Filed under: Caregiving • Children's Health • Global Health • Parenting

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