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Remembering the Forgotten Killer

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November 12th is World Pneumonia Day.

Pneumonia is a disease that often flies under the radar of not just the public but even the global health community. It kills more children under 5 years old every year than AIDS, malaria, and measles combined. Yes, read that last line again.

We need to bring this disease back into the public conversation. Every 20 seconds a child under five dies from pneumonia. It is time to end pneumonia. And we can.

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with pneumonia--an acute infection of the lungs that presents itself with coughing, rapid breaths and severe difficulty in breathing--but here in the United States advances in medical diagnosis and the availability of antibiotic treatment have ensured that healthy people and children rarely succumb to the disease.

However, I have seen firsthand in my travels to the developing world that easy prevention methods are often unknown and access to treatment is limited. Every year, more than 1.6 million children in developing countries lose their lives to pneumonia. Think about that.

But pneumonia is one of the most solvable problems in global health. A little really can go a long way. By raising awareness, promoting simple, cost-effective prevention behaviors and increasing access to inexpensive treatment methods, we can easily protect children worldwide from this disease.

In 2009, I traveled to South Sudan with my organization PSI. While there, I visited a local school and met with a group of children who had formed a water club. The group learned about how to treat their drinking water and use proper hygiene practices, such as washing their hands before eating or after going to the bathroom. I was so moved to see the passion and empowerment these children felt as they stood before me - a strange foreigner -and their entire class and teachers, teaching all of us how to wash our hands correctly and why it is important to do so.

Today I so clearly remember watching those kids and the importance of what they were doing. Studies have shown that properly washing hands with soap alone can reduce the incidence of pneumonia by as much as 25%.

In recent years, PSI has begun piloting pneumonia treatment programs in five of the 67 countries where it works: Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Uganda and, starting on this World Pneumonia Day 2011, Madagascar. These programs focus on where the need is greatest, most often among poor and rural families, to reach parents and caregivers with important messages to recognize pneumonia warning signs and motivate them to immediately seek treatment and care.

With these programs, families have access to innovative pre-packaged treatment kits that contain a dispersible, flavored oral antibiotic accompanied by illustrated instructions designed to allow caregivers or rural community health workers to treat pneumonia at home - when and where it matters. In some countries PSI programs have integrated pneumonia treatment into a broader child health approach, training community health workers in the diagnosis and treatment of diarrhea, malaria and pneumonia.

This year, PSI added more than 100,000 years of healthy life from these pilot pneumonia programs - impressive results for a relatively small portion of PSI's global health portfolio.

How great would it be if we, as a global community, brought prevention and treatment projects like these to scale in every country?

This year, as the U.S. Congress debates the 1% of the federal budget that goes to foreign aid, it is so important to use pneumonia as an example of how minimal investments into global health reap extraordinary dividends.

By preventing pneumonia and other diseases, we are giving men, women and children the chance to live healthy productive lives and participate in the global economy. In doing so, we are not only enhancing their futures - we are enhancing our own.

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