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Pneumonia Remains Leading Killer of Children Worldwide

Disease claimed 1.3 million lives in 2011 (Nov. 12)

Marking the fourth annual World Pneumonia Day on November 12, world leaders and the Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia (GCACP) have called for major efforts in the fight against childhood pneumonia, which remains the number one killer of children under 5 years of age. Pneumonia claimed 1.3 million lives in 2011 alone, and was responsible for nearly one in five global child deaths.

Investments in preventing, treating, and protecting children against pneumonia have contributed to significant declines in child mortality over the last decade, but access to healthcare facilities and treatment remains out of reach for many children in the developing world, where 99% of deaths from pneumonia occur. According to the GCACP, country leaders and funders must prioritize efforts and investments in proven interventions, including access to vaccines, proper antibiotic treatment, and improved sanitation, as well as the promotion of practices such as exclusive breastfeeding, frequent hand washing, care seeking, and the use of clean cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution. Several of these interventions also help address the second leading killer of children — diarrhea.

Antibiotics such as amoxicillin are one of the simplest and least expensive methods of treating pneumonia. However, these drugs are administered to less than one-third of children with suspected pneumonia, and only a tiny minority receives amoxicillin in the ideal form for small children — a tablet that dissolves in a small amount of liquid or breast milk. According to the UN Commission on Life-saving Commodities for Women and Children, making amoxicillin available in dissolvable tablet form to the children most at risk of dying from pneumonia would potentially save 1.56 million children over 5 years.

According to a Pneumonia Progress Report released on November 12 by the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins University, 75% of all childhood pneumonia deaths worldwide occur in just 15 countries. The report also notes that none of these countries has reached the 90% coverage targets for key pneumonia interventions recommended in the Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia (GAPP).

GAPP, issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2009, specified that child pneumonia deaths could be reduced by two-thirds if three child health interventions — breastfeeding, vaccination, and case management, including the provision of appropriate antibiotics — were scaled up to reach 90% of the world’s children.

Over the past 3 years, more than 20 countries have introduced the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which prevents the most common cause of childhood pneumonia. While progress is being made, currently only seven of the 15 countries profiled in IVAC’s report have vaccine coverage levels at or above 80%. Coverage of breastfeeding and access to antibiotics are similarly low in most countries.

Key to getting vaccines and treatments to the children who need them most are frontline health workers, who are the first and often only link to healthcare for many children. However, the WHO estimates that there is currently a shortage of at least one million frontline health workers, particularly in Africa and parts of Asia.

Source: World Pneumonia Day; November 12, 2012.

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