Pneumonia and politics don’t typically fall into the same sentence. However, pneumonia made its way to the political stage this year when two US presidential candidates were diagnosed—and successfully treated—for the infection. What didn’t make the headlines, however, was pneumonia’s tragic claim to fame—that it kills more children under five years of age than any other infection worldwide (more than HIV, tuberculosis, Zika, Ebola, and malaria combined).
Both candidates were lucky. They had access to world-class doctors—and a full suite of treatment tools—and were back on the campaign trail in no time. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the more than 900,000 children around the world each year who never see their fifth birthdays because of pneumonia.
Pneumonia knows no boundaries
Pneumonia can infect anyone—rich or poor, presidential candidates or average citizens. Those of us within close proximity to the tools to fight the infection, however, stand a much better chance of surviving than those in the poorest corners of the world where help is too often out of reach. This disparity—and the idea that a presidential candidate with pneumonia is newsworthy, but the hundreds of thousands of lives otherwise lost to pneumonia are not—should be a compelling driver to push for more equitable access to today’s pneumonia prevention and treatment tools.
We know how to prevent and treat pneumonia with tools like vaccines, antibiotics, oxygen therapy, exclusive breastfeeding, clean air, good nutrition, and handwashing—but no one intervention is enough. Similar to political issues, pneumonia must be thought of holistically, which means using the interventions we have in an integrated way that hits pneumonia from multiple angles and maximizes lives saved, while also continuing to grow and develop the toolkit.
A complicated problem requires a set of solutions
At PATH, we’re doing our part by collaborating with public-private partnerships to ensure that the arsenal of prevention tools expands and is accessible for all. We’re supporting the development and delivery of new, affordable vaccines against major causes of childhood pneumonia and other respiratory infections like the pneumococcus bacterium, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), influenza, and pertussis (whooping cough).
We’re also working to ensure that all infants have access to lifesaving human milk, which strengthens their immune systems and puts them on the path to fight pneumonia as they grow. PATH promotes and supports breastfeeding, even extending our reach to those vulnerable infants who can’t access their own mother’s milk by strengthening systems for safe and high-quality human milk banks. This includes working with government leaders to include donor human milk as part of their breastfeeding promotion strategies.
We also work with global and regional partners to develop innovative technologies for simplified quality control systems, such as the FoneAstra cell phone–based pasteurization monitoring system in South Africa. This eliminates the need for high-cost commercial grade milk pasteurizers and allows newborns to still reap the benefits of safe human milk.
We’re also working to expand the use of existing treatments. Earlier this year, the PATH team in Kenya worked alongside partners, including UNICEF, Kenya Medical Research Institute, and the Kenyan Pediatric Association, to successfully advocate that the antibiotic amoxicillin be elevated to first-line treatment for childhood pneumonia. With this successful update to the Kenya Essential Medicines List, government leaders can begin to purchase and distribute the best treatment we have to combat pneumonia.
We didn’t stop there. In September, we stood beside a coalition of partners, including private-sector companies, foundations, UN agencies, and other nonprofit organizations, to support the government of Ethiopia’s Medical Oxygen and Pulse Oximetry Scale Up Road Map, which seeks to expand access to oxygen for women and children, including those who are unable to breathe effectively due to a pneumonia infection. We are applying this global commitment to our work in Kenya, by advocating for oxygen to be included in the new Child Survival and Development Strategy, a policy that outlines key priorities for child health and helps determine resource allocations.
To bring about even greater health benefits, we’ve also united our pneumonia fight with the battle against another leading child killer—diarrheal disease. Under the Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhea, we’re working to leverage common interventions across these threats—like vaccines, handwashing, good nutrition, and breastfeeding—to do the most good in the most efficient way.
If presidential candidates can propel pneumonia into the spotlight, so should hundreds of thousands of children vying for survival each year. Our quest to control this deadly infection will continue until all the world’s children—in high- and low-income countries alike—are able to access high-quality, comprehensive prevention and treatment for pneumonia.
- Ashley Latimer is a senior policy and advocacy officer with the Advocacy and Public Policy department at PATH.