Pneumonia is the leading cause of death worldwide for children under the age of five

Over 900,000 children died in 2015 from this preventable and treatable illness.

Though pneumonia, a serious infection of the lungs, can strike people of all ages, the most vulnerable are children under the age of five. This devastating illness accounts for 16 percent of all deaths in this age group, being the single largest infectious cause of death in children worldwide. Pneumonia is most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia with six countries responsible for 51 percent of pneumonia-related deaths that occurred in children under age five during 2015- India (178,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (148,000), Nigeria (121,000), Ethiopia (114,000), Pakistan (68,000), and China (32,000).

Health officials state that this alarming situation could be averted by a concerted three-pronged effort to “protect, prevent, and treat pneumonia”. They site lack of awareness as a major issue noting that pneumonia outbreaks rarely receiving coverage in news media and the disease itself is not viewed as a priority in global health initiatives. It is likely very few people realize that annually pneumonia kills more children under age five than HIV, malaria, and measles combined.

Pneumonia can be caused by a variety of bacteria, viruses, or fungi. At times it occurs as a complication following a viral respiratory infection such as the flu or a cold. Also, pneumonia bacteria commonly exist in the throat and nose of healthy individuals. If one’s immune system is weakened, these organisms can multiply, be inhaled into the lungs, and spread infection throughout the body via the bloodstream. By sneezing or coughing, an individual can spread the pneumonia infection via airborne droplets to others nearby. Coughing, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing are the most common symptoms of pneumonia although some people may also experience headache, excessive sweating, clammy skin, fatigue, loss of appetite, low energy, confusion, and sharp chest pains that are most severe when coughing or breathing deeply. A person who has viral pneumonia is also at increased risk of getting bacterial pneumonia.

What can be done to protect individuals from this potentially life-threatening illness? Vaccines exist that prevent several of the infections that can cause pneumonia as do various antibiotics used successfully in treating individuals who actually contract the illness. Most helpful in preventing pneumonia are vaccinations for influenza, measles, chickenpox, whooping cough, Hib, and pneumococcus. Young children who contract one of these illnesses are at increased risk of developing pneumonia. In the United States and many other more affluent countries, effective and affordable vaccinations have been readily available and widespread vaccination programs in place for several years. Improved diagnostic testing and a reduction in medical conditions (diabetes, heart disease) and behaviors (smoking) that can increase one’s risk for pneumonia are also more common in these same countries.

This is not the case in many poor countries especially those with large rural populations that include many young children. In addition, other factors often present in these countries further increase the risk of pneumonia in young children. These include:

  • Having a compromised immune system due to pre-existing illnesses like measles and HIV
  • Exposure to indoor air pollution from cooking and/or heating with wood, dung, and other biomass fuels
  • Living in crowded conditions
  • Having parents or other adults in the home who smoke 

In 2009, more than 100 health organizations formed the Global Coalition Against Childhood Pneumonia and held the first World Pneumonia Day to raise awareness and promote interventions that could reduce this alarming statistic. The group has since grown in membership and just sponsored their seventh annual World Pneumonia Day on Nov. 12.

 The coalition recommends a comprehensive approach to reduce the incidence of childhood pneumonia. Important preventative approaches include:

  • Babies be exclusively fed breast milk for their first six months
  • All children receive adequate nutrition through age five
  • Families have access to clean water and practice hand-washing regularly
  • Indoor air pollution be eliminated especially smoke from unsafe cook stoves
  • Children be vaccinated, receive other supplements as appropriate, and antibiotics if needed. 

Health officials are hopeful that the number of pneumonia-related deaths especially among young children will decrease as educational efforts and vaccination programs reach families in the most at-risk areas of the globe. Programs that protect against, prevent and treat pneumonia are critical if this serious global health issue is to be overcome. 

Michigan State University Extension offers a wealth of information and experts to assist you in learning more about keeping yourself and your family healthy.

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