November 12, 2015 |

Advocacy in action: lifesaving standards for childhood pneumonia treatment now in sight

An expected revision to Kenya’s treatment guidelines for pneumonia will benefit children. What’s the change?
Woman, smiling and holding a female infant in her arms. The infant is facing away from the camera, looking over the woman's shoulder.
An upcoming revision to Kenya’s pneumonia treatment guidelines will help save lives from the leading cause of child deaths and give more children the chance to grow up healthy. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bienczycki.

It’s World Pneumonia Day, and within a few short weeks, Kenyan children, mothers, health practitioners, and advocates—like me—hope to celebrate a milestone toward saving children’s lives. Revised national guidelines are expected to direct nurses and doctors to administer amoxicillin, an antibiotic recommended by the World Health Organization as first-line treatment for pneumonia, to children suffering from the country’s leading cause of child deaths. This policy change would align Kenya’s treatment practices with global standards to protect children from pneumonia.

The right tools to fight infection

While pneumonia can be caused by viral, bacterial, or other disease agents, most cases of pneumonia are due to bacteria. This means that, for the majority of children who contract the illness, early access to amoxicillin—an effective and affordable antibiotic—can be lifesaving. Despite the fact that pneumonia kills more children under five in Kenya (and around the world) than any other disease, too few receive timely treatment. In fact, in 2009, only half of the children diagnosed with pneumonia in Kenya were treated properly with antibiotics.

The revised guidelines, now in the final stages of approval by the Ministry of Health, will help change this situation. The release of these guidelines will be the culmination of several years of PATH’s advocacy work in partnership with child health experts in the Ministry, Kenya Medical Research Institute, Kenya Pediatric Association, and UNICEF. Working together, we gathered evidence to make the case for revised pneumonia policies, including making the change from cotrimoxazole, an antibiotic meeting increasing resistance in pneumonia cases, to amoxicillin as first-line treatment.

Kenya introduced pneumococcal vaccines in 2011, and with first-line treatment of amoxicillin now in sight, we are on our way to a comprehensive prevention and treatment strategy for pneumonia.

When medicine isn’t available

My colleague Alfred Ochola is a PATH clinical officer and child health expert who spends most of his time in rural Western Kenya. He has seen firsthand the dangers that outdated guidelines can present. For many years, he has watched children grow sick with the telltale signs of wheezing and fever. Without access to amoxicillin for treatment, pneumonia often became a death sentence for them.

“As a clinician, and one who has worked among sick children for more than two decades,” Ochola says, “the arrival of these guidelines and the availability of the right drug to treat this deadly disease will go a long way toward saving lives, particularly in rural areas.”

Connecting policy to action

Together with my colleagues and advocacy partners, I look forward to the release of the new guidelines and to their dissemination around the country to ensure more children have access to the treatment they need. As advocates, however, we have more work to do.

Our next step will be to work with the Ministry of Health to ensure that amoxicillin is included on the country’s Essential Medicines List, which guides national and county-level procurement of the most important medicines for Kenya’s people. We will also continue to support the policy changes necessary to ensure amoxicillin is registered, purchased, delivered, available, and affordable in Kenya through both public and private channels. The revised pneumonia treatment and management guidelines are a first step toward making the case for these imperative policy changes.

Moving forward

Today, as we mark World Pneumonia Day, I am very optimistic about the future of child health in my country. With these new pneumonia treatment guidelines in sight and a network of child health experts and advocates working together to prevent and treat this leading cause of child death, we are taking significant steps to ease the burden of pneumonia.

I look forward to celebrating a new milestone in child health for Kenya and urge us to keep the momentum going to end preventable deaths of our children.

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  • Wanjiku Manguyu is a family health advocacy officer in our Advocacy and Public Policy Program at PATH in Kenya.