Pneumonia, leading cause of death in children

Seeing as many of my courses and global health experiences have focused on the same few global health initiatives, I thought I would take a look at other conditions that I have encountered less frequently: for instance, pneumonia.

Distribution of deaths from pneumonia and other causes in children aged less than 5 years, by WHO region. Image Courtesy: WHO

Distribution of deaths from pneumonia and other causes in children aged less than 5 years, by WHO region. Image Courtesy: WHO

Pneumonia–a respiratory infection in the lungs brought on by viruses, bacteria, or fungi that causes painful breathing and limited oxygen intake–is the leading cause of death in children throughout the world. The WHO measures the specifics of this data, detailing that 1.1 million children age five and under and killed by  pneumonia every year; most of which are in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

In sub-Saharan Africa, people living in extreme poverty are particularly susceptible to contracting pneumonia due to malnourishment, poor sanitation, and contaminated food and water sources. Furthermore, sub-Saharan Africa hosts some of the highest rates of HIV in the world, and HIV puts an individual at a higher risk of developing pneumonia. The deadly combination of HIV and pneumonia necessitates numerous and expensive medications, assuming these medications can be obtained in the first place. And even if patients obtain the right treatments, they are at increased risk of developing resistance to the drugs.

Like sub-Saharan Africa, people in South Asia are at higher risk of pneumonia due to extreme poverty. Indoor air pollution, smoking, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are other risk factors prevalent in the region. Again, high rates of HIV are problematic due to increased risk of contracting pneumonia, excessive medication, and drug resistance. While there are many existing interventions designed to combat pneumonia in South Asia, few of these interventions are present in places where they are needed the most: consequently, pneumonia remains a significant problem.

As with many common infections, pneumonia is easily prevented and treated given easy access to primary care and antibiotics. Immunization, good personal nutrition, personal hygiene, and a healthy, sanitary environment are all prevention strategies. Treatment involves a simple round of antibiotics. While these prevention and treatment are effective for those with access to medical care and who live in a stable, healthy environment, pneumonia often proves fatal for those already experiencing malnourishment or unhygienic living conditions.

What can be done? Because the bulk of pneumonia-related deaths occur in impoverished countries, attending to environmental risk factors (pollution, water sources, food sources, overcrowding) is one preventative measure. As far as treatment interventions go, there must be increased access to care via community health workers or clinics who can provide vaccinations, antibiotics, and/or clean oxygen. The WHO has taken steps to address both prevention and treatment strategies in regions where pneumonia is a leading cause of death with the Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea, which aims to end preventable deaths by pneumonia and diarrhoea by 2025. This initiative includes the dispersal of vaccinations, soap, clean indoor stoves, water treatments, promoting breastfeeding, and, of course, working to expand the reach of clinics and health workers.

Northwestern’s 2014 Global Health Case Competition focused on this often-overlooked problem. The Case Competition featured eight teams, all of whom were presented a case about childhood pneumonia and then asked to develop a solution. Elizabeth Larsen, a sophomore participant, emphasizes the significance of the issue, stating, “It’s important to give attention to the often overlooked problem of childhood pneumonia because it continues to kill millions of children around the world.” Because of this far-reaching impact, it is important for events like the Global Health Case Competition and individuals everywhere to continue to focus on pneumonia.

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