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Pneumonia – the forgotten epidemic




Pneumonia is the world’s deadliest disease but it’s often a forgotten epidemic. Every year it kills more children than any other illness. To put this into context, one child dies from pneumonia every 39 seconds.

Despite these horrific stats, many people don’t realise the huge, damaging affect the disease has on children. A recent poll showed that only 4% of UK adults correctly identified pneumonia as the world’s biggest infectious killer.

Often the most affected are the poorest and most vulnerable children, where conditions like diarrhoea and malnutrition can leave them at a greater risk of contracting pneumonia.

Dr Kabeya is a paediatrician based in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He works in a Save the Children supported hospital, and regularly treats children with severe cases of pneumonia. We spoke to him about his experience of treating children with the disease.

Working with Pneumonia

“My name is Dr Kabeya, I’m a general practitioner at the general hospital of Makota, and I have worked here for five years. I work with a really strong team of nurses and doctors, who work together to give patients the care they need to start healing.”

Doctor Kayeba and his colleague in a Save the Children supported hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo
Doctor Kabeya and a colleague

“Every month we receive around 50 cases of pneumonia, of these 10-15 or sometimes even 20 are severe cases of pneumonia. We work incredibly hard to treat our patients and when we see a child ready to breathe well and not coughing anymore, it makes us feel happy.”

What is Pneumonia

“Pneumonia is a disease that affects the lungs, it compromises breathing which in turn affects the oxygen levels within the body. Children need oxygen to develop and if for a minute a child cannot breathe properly a lot of damage can occur.

Oxygen is important and by helping a child to breathe better, it will help us to improve the child’s chances of survival.

Children under the age of 5 are more exposed to this disease and we need to work with communities to provide a better understanding of prevention.

What can be done to prevent the number of cases of pneumonia?

“To significantly reduce pneumonia in the community, efforts need to be combined. Firstly, starting at home and telling parents to cook outside the house if they are using wood, because smoke can be the basis of pneumonia.

Secondly, always insisting that the problem is identified earlier at the time of antenatal consultation and even beyond that ensuring that when the child is born, it is vaccinated.

Thirdly, to significantly reduce the number of antibiotics being used incorrectly in the community to treat a small cough. And finally is to insist on all health centres and hospitals to send patients to other centres if they are overwhelmed to ensure they can be treated properly.


Luc* is 1 year and 7 months old and arrived in the hospital where he could not breathe properly, he was coughing and was very weak which meant he couldn’t sit up for a long time. This difficulty in breathing could be seen with the naked eye because the movement in his chest was too fast. The child also had a fever and that’s what led us to think this was a severe case of pneumonia.


Treatment has several aspects. Namely the medication aspect, which includes adjusting the level of oxygen supply to support the child, and also an antibiotic treatment.

Luc* was given antibiotics for two or three days and after 4-5 hours when we reassessed, he was already looking better than when he first arrived at the hospital. He could already recognise everything around him, including his mother, and was able to take something by mouth. It’s too early to celebrate, but we are continuing to monitor this child.

If he had spent more time at home he could have died. And seeing him today breathing more confidently and not coughing any more, makes us happy. When Luc first arrived, he could not eat, he had a swelling of almost the whole body, he coughed and could not breathe properly. Now he has been treated he is able to eat and can even drink his therapeutic milk alone. He no longer has a fever and no longer has seizures so we can say that this child is recovering well.

Luc* and his mother

We can only be happy knowing what we have been able to overcome through our work. For me this is what I enjoy about my job, whenever a simple, well-conducted act happens to save lives this is when I’m most happy. It is a pleasure to serve humanity.


What you can do next:

Read more about Pneumonia here

Donate to help support children like Luc*

Read our other blogs on pneumonia





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