11/02/2009 02:39 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pneumonia: A Bigger Killer than Swine Flu

There's a lot of debate among parents in the U.S. about the H1N1 vaccine. Some of the parents of small children I've spoken to over the last week are seriously debating whether to get it. Many are deciding not to give their child yet another vaccine.

However, what if H1N1 was the leading killer of children, responsible for one out of every five childhood deaths in the United States? There wouldn't be any debate at all about it. Every parent would want their child innoculated immediately, and the current stockpiles of the vaccine -- already in short supply -- would be totally inadequate to keep pace with demand.

The fact is, in the developing world, that situation exists, but the killer isn't H1N1; it's pneumonia.

This may be a surprise to you since the perception is that pneumonia is a disease that tends to kill elderly people with pre-existing medical conditions. I'll bet that you're surprised to learn that pneumonia is the leading killer of children worldwide, causing 20 percent of all childhood deaths, more than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. Pneumonia kills a child every 15 seconds, and yet, is easily prevented through a vaccine and just as easily treated with antibiotics. However, these simple and effective tools are just not available as broadly as they're needed and as a tragic result, two million kids die needlessly every year.

Here in Rwanda, people see the devastating effects of pneumonia on children far too often. Pneumonia affects children everywhere, but its most deadly impact is in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa; 98% of pneumonia deaths occur in these hot spots.

To draw attention to the disease, and to marshal much-needed resources to fight it, nearly 100 global health organizations have came together to make November 2 the world's first annual World Pneumonia Day. These partners (which include the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, Save the Children, The Millennium Villages Project, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the National Institutes of Health, and many others) are urging governments worldwide to take the necessary action to stop the clock on pneumonia. The steps necessary to launch this fight are put forward in a Global Action Plan released by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. The six-year plan is calling for a scale up of the interventions to control the disease. The goal is to prioritize pneumonia.

For many years, the global community has focused on fighting diseases with plans that are resource-heavy and which require massive commitments to stage their interventions. That's important work but the time has come to integrate diseases such as pneumonia into existing efforts. The greatest barrier to pneumonia prevention and treatment is not the need for an elusive vaccine or drug, but rather, the political will and commitment of resources to fight.

Luckily, key public figures are ringing the alarm:

"We live in a world with infinite possibilities," writes former U.S. Senate Majority Leader and Save the Children Board member, Bill Frist, MD and Dr. Richard Sezibera, Rwanda's Minister of Health, who have co-authored a report on pneumonia in this week's edition of The Lancet. "Hearts are transplanted, DNA is decoded, and new medical advances are made every day. Yet we continue to be stymied by how best to reach those in resource-poor settings with the most basic care and medicines that we take for granted...Resources and political will are standing between children and their futures. With the right tools, we should not fail the next generation of leaders and doctors."