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Pneumonia: The Silent Killer of Children

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Each child is born with only one set of lungs with which to run around, laugh, sing, blow kisses, and throw the occasional (hopefully) temper tantrum.

But for all the beautiful things a child's lungs can do, they also provide a breeding ground for many of the deadliest diseases affecting children: tuberculosis (TB), asthma, and pneumonia.

Earlier this month, I was at the Union World Conference on Lung Health -- the biggest meeting of the brightest minds working on lung health. For the first time, this year's conference featured an overwhelming number of sessions focusing on the often neglected topic of childhood TB, something I care deeply about. Yet only one session gathered experts across these three diseases, and only a handful of panels discussed pneumonia despite its status as the number one killer of children worldwide.

So at arguably the most important lung conference in the world, pneumonia continued quietly earning its moniker of "silent killer."

This silence is frustrating as pneumonia is a disease that kills 1.1 million children every year and can be prevented with simple solutions that also protect against related child killers like tuberculosis and diarrhea.

  • We can protect children from pneumonia by ensuring they are well-nourished in the first 1,000 days of their life. For instance, breastfeeding provides the nutrients necessary to help a baby fight off infections such as pneumonia and TB. Children who are not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia than children who are breastfed.
  • Vaccines, particularly the new pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), can prevent a significant portion of the deadliest pneumonia cases.
  • We can effectively treat children for pneumonia using amoxicillin, an antibiotic that costs less than $1 per dose.

Globally, we have begun strong collective efforts in many of these areas.

  • At the Nutrition For Growth summit last June in London, many countries stepped up to fund country-level plans that will scale up strategies to fight child undernutrition.
  • Since 2011, world leaders have ensured the GAVI Alliance -- a public-private partnership that increases access to immunizations in developing countries -- has the resources needed to reach almost a quarter billion additional children in 50 countries with new vaccines, including the PCV vaccine, by 2015.
  • One year ago, a commission of experts and leaders created a plan to scale up access to life-saving commodities like amoxicillin, which could save 1.56 million lives if implemented.

The difficulty lies in ensuring these global resources reach the world's most vulnerable children in a way that makes sense for each child.

In a blog earlier this year, I discussed how protecting the world's most vulnerable children must be done in an integrated way because it doesn't make sense to reach a child with one intervention, only to fall short in another. Children and their parents need quality and affordable health care, close to home, where they can access vaccines, antibiotics like amoxicillin, and other life-saving care.

We can start to address this difficulty by collectively raising our voices in the face of the "silent killer" of pneumonia. We need public and political will to ensure leaders at global and national levels work together to fight pneumonia in tandem with related child health threats.

And to ensure every last child in every village, town, and city is reached with an integrated package of care, child health experts and advocates must work together. Pneumonia and tuberculosis experts can't go to a conference and spend a week sitting in separate rooms, just like a child cannot sit in multiple waiting rooms in multiple clinics to receive the care he or she needs.