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A child being treated for pneumonia in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. A child being treated for pneumonia in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. 

9 mln children could die of pneumonia and other diseases in a decade

Pneumonia claims the lives of more than 800,000 children under five every year. The toll could be the highest in Nigeria in the coming decade with 1.4 million deaths. An estimated 162,000 died in the country in 2018.

By Robin Gomes

Some 9 million child deaths can be avoided in the coming decade if efforts to fight pneumonia and other major diseases are boosted.

The warning comes from ISGlobal, Save the Children, UNICEF, Every Breath Counts, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ”la Caixa” Foundation, USAID, Unitaid and Gavi, that are hosting world leaders at the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia in Barcelona, Spain, January 29-31, the first international forum on childhood pneumonia.

Pneumonia - neglected disease

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. It is the biggest single killer of children, claiming the lives of 800,000 children last year, or 1 child every 39 seconds.  Yet it remains a neglected disease both nationally and globally.

Child deaths from pneumonia are concentrated in the world’s poorest countries and it is the most deprived and marginalised children who suffer the most.

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 does not receive essential medical care.

Forecasts show 6.3 million children under the age of five could die from pneumonia between 2020 and 2030, on current trends. 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).

Multi-pronged action

Health interventions aimed at improving nutrition, providing antibiotics and increasing vaccine coverage, boosting breastfeeding rates – key measures that reduce the risk of children dying from pneumonia – would also prevent millions of child deaths from diseases like diarrhoea (2.1 million), sepsis (1.3 million), and measles (280,000).

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). Household pollution from the indoor use of solid cooking fuels contributes to an additional 195,000 (29.4 per cent) deaths.

Ninety-one per cent of the world’s population is breathing outdoor air that exceeds WHO standards. The scale of the air pollution challenge could potentially undermine the impact of scaling up pneumonia-related interventions. 

Other causes of pneumonia deaths include malnutrition and lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics. According to the Johns Hopkins modelling, of the total 8.9 million deaths from all causes that could be averted over the next decade, 3.9 million would be the result of greater efforts to reduce levels of malnutrition alone. 

The Global Forum is for reflection, but a call to action to deliver concrete measures with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives.

29 January 2020, 14:16