It was the end of a brutal long winter when my son developed a fever and a cough. It couldn't have come at a worse time, as his fourth birthday party was just a week away. As a physician, I was quite sure it was just another cold. But as a parent, I dutifully took him to see the pediatrician. She looked him over and confirmed my suspicions -- most likely a viral illness. With fluids, fever medicine and rest, he would recuperate in a few days. Initially, he seemed to be getting better with a little more energy and appetite. Until the morning I woke up and found him listless. He had no new complaints, but I could tell he wasn't himself. Back to the pediatrician's office we went. His breathing was a bit more rapid than before, so the nurse put a tiny probe on his finger to check how much oxygen he was getting. I was speechless when I saw the number on the monitor. In that moment, I knew my son had pneumonia.
For parents, pneumonia is an incredibly insidious disease. In its initial stages, it can look like an everyday cold. Its stealth nature makes it lethal -- killing nearly a million children under the age of five each year -- children very much like my son. On World Pneumonia Day alone, over 4,200 children will die, one every 20 seconds. Families living in poor and rural communities are more likely to lose a child to pneumonia. Shockingly, half of all childhood deaths from pneumonia are concentrated in just five countries -- the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.
Children can be protected from pneumonia through vaccinations, improved nutrition, hand washing with soap, the use of clean cookstoves for better air quality and exclusive breastfeeding for newborns. Better tools designed for low-resource settings can help health workers detect pneumonia sooner and prescribe life-saving antibiotics that are surprisingly affordable. Despite knowing how to prevent, detect and treat pneumonia, childhood deaths from this pernicious disease have barely budged. We need to urgently reach all children and their parents with these life-saving interventions.
My circumstances were fortunate. I had health insurance, could afford the co-pay, had access to transportation and could take time off from my job. If any one of those had been different, I might have waited another day or two to take my son back with unknown consequences on his health. Our ending was happy. After several days of antibiotics, my son made a full recovery and celebrated his fourth birthday at his (rescheduled) party. My story should be the story of every mother whose child has pneumonia, no matter how much money she has or where she lives.
Having a child who has had pneumonia helps you understand how subtle the symptoms are and how sick your child can become. It is a humbling experience because it sneaks up on you, catching you by surprise. It is a sad experience because it is relatively simple to conquer (unlike other diseases) yet many children needlessly suffer. It gives new meaning to a day dedicated to a deadly disease that seems to affect children far away until one day your own child is afflicted.