Today, the world's ministers of health deserve our praise and recognition for resolving themselves to tackle the biggest killer of children with proven interventions. By picking childhood pneumonia as their target, the health ministers provided a shining example of a policy shaped by overwhelming evidence, not politics.
Last year on World Pneumonia Day the WHO and UNICEF launched the Global Action Plan for Pneumonia (GAPP) which shows the world how a package of simple available interventions can reduce child pneumonia deaths by two thirds by 2015. Last week, the World Health Organization released information showing that pneumonia remains the biggest killer of children worldwide, accounting for more than 1.5 million deaths per year. Today, the World Health Assembly in Geneva passed the first ever resolution aimed at preventing and treating childhood pneumonia.
It would be interesting to know what moved the ministers into action at this assembly. Pneumonia has been the leading killer of children for years, even as other diseases gained attention and resources.
Perhaps they were compelled by the statistics on the burden of disease. Maybe they were convinced by the studies showing how vaccines against measles, Hib, and pneumococcus could safely, effectively prevent these infections. Perhaps they were moved by evidence that expanding simple, community based management with antibiotics saves lives, and that improving nutrition reduces the susceptibility to and consequences of pneumonia. Or maybe they were touched by the human stories, like that of Salim Khan, who developed pneumonia following measles and narrowly survived, but only after a treatment that cost so much his grandmother had to pawn her family jewelry to pay for it.
Whatever the motivations, every health minister deserves credit and praise today for joining together in a resolution to fight pneumonia. But the battle against pneumonia needs everyone, not just government officials, and a resolution is only the beginning. Sustained, collective action by governments, citizens, corporations, and health providers will be needed to reach our goals for pneumonia treatment and prevention.
To begin moving from resolution to action donors must scale up their funding commitments and developing country governments must invest in health system improvements to ensure that vaccines and antibiotics reach every child in need. Industry must continue to research and develop new vaccines and treatments for developing world populations, and provide them at prices that assure access for all. Families can protect their children from possible infection by limiting indoor air pollution, ensuring adequate infant nutrition and vaccination, and reduce the consequences of pneumonia by seeking timely treatment when children become ill.
World Pneumonia Day 2010 (November 12th) provides an opportunity for everyone to get involved in helping children and their families. When it comes to pneumonia, a disease that has topped the list of child killers for years without gaining much attention, we've learned its never too early to start planning an event or spreading the word. Americans can start today by sending a note to Secretary Kathleen Sebelius thanking her for supporting the pneumonia resolution and urging her to take immediate action against pneumonia in the USA and abroad.