11/12/2010 12:08 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Child Pneumonia Death Every 20 Seconds Is Unacceptable

One of my earliest memories is peering out at my parents from the inside of an oxygen tent when I was hospitalized for severe pneumonia as a toddler in New Jersey. If I hadn't been living in the United States, with the best medical care available in 1955, I probably wouldn't have survived.

It's shocking that so many children in 2010 are still at risk for contracting pneumonia more than half a century later -- a risk that is often due to nothing more than an accident of geography. With all we know about effective interventions today, no child should still be at risk. And yet, pneumonia still kills more children under the age of five than any other disease, claiming a young life every 20 seconds.

While the closest many people in developed nations will get to pneumonia is in history books, the threat of pneumonia is an everyday reality for many individuals in nations with weak health care infrastructures. An estimated 98 percent of children who die of pneumonia today live in developing countries, while rates in developed nations have declined drastically, thanks to widespread childhood vaccination. That's why the Global Coalition against Childhood Pneumonia is marking World Pneumonia Day on Nov. 12 for the second year.

In fact, pneumonia is one of the most readily solvable problems in global health. We already have the safe, effective and affordable tools necessary to both prevent and treat pneumonia. But pneumonia is still far too common in many developing countries due to lack of access to these basic tools.

More than one million children's lives could be saved annually in these nations by implementing widespread use of vaccines that we, in developed countries, have had access to for decades, and by simply improving access to existing antibiotics.

Dr. Rehana Ahmed, reproductive health specialist for the UN Millennium Project based in Nairobi, Kenya, remembers hearing about pneumonia in her native Pakistan from her grandmother, who had 11 pregnancies and miscarried twice. Of her nine children who survived past birth, four died of pneumonia.

"As a little girl, I recall her telling us the story of how she had lost four boys aged six months to five years to this disease," said Dr. Ahmed. "Needless to say it was very distressing for her, but it seemed a very common happening then, before antibiotics."

As is the case in many developing nations, Pakistan has become accustomed to the large death toll of this disease that is both easily prevented and inexpensively treated. In Pakistan, no disease kills more children aged less than five years than pneumonia -- and when a fifth of the population is composed of children under five, the impact of pneumonia touches every family.

Children should have access to effective and affordable treatment
  • Treatment for most types of serious pneumonia is usually antibiotics, which typically cost less than one dollar per dose.
Preventing pneumonia before it occurs is crucial:
  • Vaccines are a safe and effective tool for preventing pneumonia -- vaccines against two of the main causes of life-threatening pneumonia -- pneumococcus and haemophilous influenzae (Hib) are already used throughout the developed world.
  • Vaccines for measles and pertussis (whooping cough) prevent infections that can lead to pneumonia as a complication.

So what you can do to make this right? The World Pneumonia Day website has several useful ideas for engagement and advocacy.

One of the most important things you can do is to make sure your members of Congress -- and of national parliaments in other donor countries -- know about this and ask them to fight for increased funding for child health along with increased investments in health workers.

Child deaths from preventable infections like pneumonia should be a distant memory for us all, instead of a current source of misery for many in developing nations. Together, we can ensure that every child affected by pneumonia has the same happy outcome that I did in 1955.