12 November 2014

Ending child deaths from pneumonia

A child in rural Mongolia receiving medical care in rural Mongolia ©UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0448/Cullen 

Today is world pneumonia day. Globally pneumonia is the largest infectious killer of children under five. In 2012 pneumonia killed 1.1 million children under five, or 5,500 children every day, or one child every 15 seconds. Nearly all of these deaths occurred in developing countries.

In Mongolia, pneumonia is the second largest cause of death in children under five. It accounts for 15 per cent of under-five mortality across the country, or the lives of over 900 children every year. However, in rural and remote areas and amongst poor families, children are at a higher risk.

Pneumonia is caused by a bacteria. People are more vulnerable to it if they have weakened immune systems, because of malnutrition or disease. And this is especially true for children, who are already more vulnerable than adults.

The real tragedy is that pneumonia can be prevented and cured. If caught early and treatment is sought, there is a very high recovery rate, with no permanent health repercussions.

If it can be prevented and cured, why do so many children in Mongolia die from pneumonia each year?

UNICEF, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, recently carried out extensive research on children and pneumonia. And the findings were clear - parents and caregivers did not know what to do to prevent pneumonia, how to identify the symptoms of the disease and that they needed to seek treatment as early as possible.

This information means we know what we need to do.

Currently the focus on pneumonia is on treatment. This needs to change to prevention and protection. Key to achieving this are parents and caregivers. They are the people who can make sure that their children are vaccinated, ensure good nutrition and promote good hygiene practices, which protect and prevent pneumonia.

While these are vital, we need to make sure that they are achievable. For example, asking families to improve hygiene practices is only possible if they have access to hand washing and sanitation facilities. This means a greater investment in improving hygiene and sanitation facilities is needed.

Similarly we need to support good nutrition. Good nutrition helps build a child’s immune system. UNICEF recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child’s life, and then continued breastfeeding for the next 18 months with adequate complementary feeding, with, if necessary, additional micronutrient support. Again, families need to be able to access support to ensure their children are receiving adequate nutrition.

And lastly, vaccinations are important. Vaccinations against pneumococcus, Hib, pertussis and measles can prevent a significant proportion of pneumonia cases. Earlier this year Mongolia was certified measles free by the World Health Organization – a great achievement. But we are lagging behind on the other vaccinations, putting children at risk. Immunization is one of the most cost-effective investments that can be made to prevent pneumonia.

Parents and caregivers need to know what the symptoms are, and to seek medical advice early. If treated early, pneumonia can be cured, with no long term health impacts. Antibiotics can prevent the majority of pneumonia deaths. Moreover, they are cheap costing less than 50 cents per course of treatment. 

Every year hundreds of thousands of children die unnecessarily from an easily preventable and curable disease. Globally efforts are being made to see zero child deaths from pneumonia by 2025. UNICEF is committed to achieving this goal worldwide, but also here in Mongolia. Achieving this will require a range of stakeholders from government, the international community, non-government organizations and civil society working together, making the elimination of pneumonia a priority and investing resources into achieving this. But it is possible to have no children in Mongolia dying from pneumonia by 2025 – it is up to us to make it a reality.

Author

Surenchimeg Vanchinkhuu is the Health Specialist at UNICEF in Mongolia

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