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Fighting for breath

Having just finished my first year as CEO at Save the Children, this feels like a good moment to share some thoughts on a campaign as important as anything I have ever worked on – and one that I’m personally determined to make a success.

The campaign in question is on pneumonia – the disease which kills more children globally than any other, claiming almost 1 million lives each year.

For anyone who cares about fairness, justice or our shared responsibility to uphold the rights of children, pneumonia should be a defining cause of our age. Bending the curve on pneumonia deaths is possible. Our new report, Fighting for Breath: A call to action on childhood pneumonia, which was launched yesterday evening at an event with the Secretary of State for International Development, sets out some of the practical interventions that could save 1 million lives over the next five years.

Ahead of launching the campaign, I’ve been visiting communities, health centres and hospitals in high-burden pneumonia areas.

No amount of background research prepares you for the reality.

We help children like Khadija, who was admitted to the hospital with severe pneumonia, severe acute malnutrition and dehydration.

Last month I was in northern Kenya visiting the paediatric ward of a referral hospital. Baby May* was admitted just before I arrived. The early warning signs of pneumonia had been missed and what was probably a very treatable case had become very severe. She was literally gasping for breath and unresponsive to antibiotics. Sadly, she died the next morning.

I’ve also seen some extraordinary stories of hope. Our nutrition clinic in southern Somalia admits around 150 severely malnourished children every month. Around half of these children have pneumonia. Most of them have been brought by their mothers over long distances in incredibly difficult conditions. I met baby Samira*, who arrived at our clinic weighing just 9 lbs, in a coma and suffering from severe pneumonia. Samira only just survived and happily is now back in her village.

The tragedy is that pneumonia killed around 920,000 children in 2015 – more than diarrhoea and malaria combined – and death rates are coming down very slowly. It is the poorest and most marginalised children who are most likely to contract pneumonia, but also the least likely to have access to healthcare needed to diagnose and treat it. The fact that most cases of pneumonia can be effectively treated for as little as $0.40 makes the current death toll intolerable – and new modelling work carried out for Save the Children estimates that there will still be around 730,000 deaths from pneumonia in 2030. Failure to change this trajectory will break the Sustainable Development Goal pledge to ‘end avoidable child deaths.’

Baby Robert was taken to Turkwel Health Centre, which is supported by Save the Children, by his mother, Lydia, after he developed a fever, a cough and fast breathing.

There are no marches, pink ribbons or global summits for the two children who die every minute from pneumonia. My hope is that our campaign will raise awareness of this issue with policymakers, governments, global institutions – and most importantly, all of Save the Children’s friends and supporters. We can’t do this without you.

Kofi Annan, writing the foreword for our report, quotes Dr Martin Luther King: “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now…there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action”. I hope you’ll read our report and feel the same way.

Join us to find out more and work with us to end preventable child deaths from pneumonia.

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