12 November 2018
Pneumonia is the world’s leading infectious disease killer of children under 5 years old, despite being easily preventable and treatable. World Pneumonia Day is held on November 12th each year to raise awareness of the disease; promote interventions that protect against, prevent and treat pneumonia; and generate action to combat deadly childhood diseases.
What is Pneumonia?
Pneumonia is a type of chest infection that affects the lungs. A person’s lungs contain small sacs (alveoli) that fill with air when they breathe. If someone has pneumonia, their alveoli are filled with fluid and puss, which makes breathing difficult and painful.
Pneumonia has several causes, including bacteria like the pneumococcus, viruses and fungi. These organisms may spread from the back of a person’s throat or nose into the lungs and cause pneumonia and often pass from one person to another via droplets from the nose or mouth (such as coughing, sneezing or kissing).
Although anyone of any age can get pneumonia, adults over the age of 65 years, people with pre-existing lung diseases and those who smoke or drink to excess are at-risk groups. Children and babies are also an at-risk group, and those who have compromised immune systems, have parents who smoke around them, and who live in crowded homes are at even greater risk.
Pneumonia protection, prevention and treatment
Although most healthy children make a full recovery from pneumonia, it is the world’s leading infectious disease killer of children under 5 years of age. Pneumonia in children is most prevalent in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Treating the disease can be a heavy financial and emotional burden on the whole family. The cost of illness may include paying for access to medical care, antibiotics and transport to and from health facilities. Parents may need to take time off work to look after their sick child, and siblings may be unable to access education if school fees are instead spent on healthcare costs. This all contributes to the cycle of poverty.
That’s why it is vital to protect against and prevent pneumonia. Ensuring that children receive adequate nutrition from birth and are breast fed where possible is key to improving their natural immune systems, which in turn helps to protect children against pneumonia.
The most effective way to prevent pneumonia is to ensure that individuals are vaccinated against Hib, pneumococcus, measles and whooping cough. Research has found that world’s 73 poorest countries between 2011 and 2020 could save more than 2.9 million lives, prevent 52 million cases of illness, and save $51 USD billion in treatment costs and productivity loses. Reducing indoor air pollution and implementing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) interventions can also help to prevent pneumonia.
Most cases of pneumonia can be treated with inexpensive oral antibiotics and hospitalisation is only recommended for severe cases. However, diagnosing pneumonia in children and treating it can be challenging; for example, healthcare professionals may have trouble distinguishing it from other illnesses, such as malaria. This means that protective and preventative measures are the best way to combat the disease.
What’s the link between pneumonia and meningitis?
One of the most common causes of pneumonia, pneumococcal bacteria, can also cause meningitis if they reach the lining of the brain. Most cases of pneumococcal meningitis occur in babies and young children under the age of 18 months. The risk of dying from pneumococcal meningitis is very high in young children, around 40%, and around 25% of survivors will be left with a severe disability.
Ash Langoulant was diagnosed with pneumococcal meningitis when she was 6 months old. Her dad, Bruce Langoulant, CoMO Governing Council Member and Chair of Meningitis Centre Australia, says:
“Twenty eight years ago Ashleigh was born a healthy and happy baby. Our family like many was living a normal family life. We had no history of any health challenges with our kids or through our broader family network.
Out of the blue her life and ours was challenged by pneumococcal meningitis, which attacked her developing brain. Remarkably, Ash survived, but her baby body was left with many after affects. This has meant adapting to a life with a range of permanent disabilities. Her principle diagnosis was Cerebral Palsy.
Today as a maturing young woman she is a happy and otherwise healthy member of our family and her community. Ash has a beautiful ability to attract people to her open and loving personality. Ashleigh is unable to walk, or talk, or hear, or fully understand. She is dependent on others for her daily care, personal needs, and epilepsy support.”
This World Pneumonia Day, help raise awareness of the best ways to protect against, prevent and treat pneumonia. Despite improvements over the last 20 years, too many young lives are lost to pneumonia: we must stand together to fight this preventable disease.
 Wahl B, O'Brien KL, Greenbaum A, Majumder A, Liu L, Chu Y, et al. Burden of Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b disease in children in the era of conjugate vaccines: global, regional, and national estimates for 2000–15. The Lancet Global Health. 2018;6(7):e744-e57
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Becky works at CoMO's Head Office in the UK and coordinates CoMO's communications and events. Becky has a background in international development and has worked for a variety of charitable organisations throughout her career.