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The world must act on childhood pneumonia

At the first ever global forum on pneumonia, leading agencies including Save the Children and UNICEF are meeting to boost efforts in the fight against the disease. This comes after new analysis from Johns Hopkins University found that nine million lives could be saved by scaling up the fight against the childhood pneumonia.


Child deaths from pneumonia are concentrated in the world’s poorest countries and it is the most deprived and marginalised who suffer the most. Forecasts show 6.2 million children under the age of five could die from childhood pneumonia between 2020 and 2030. Over the next decade, deaths are likely to be highest in Nigeria (1.4 million), India (880,000), the Democratic Republic of Congo (350,000) and Ethiopia (280,000).

The disease is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. Malnutrition, air pollution and lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics all contribute to preventable deaths from pneumonia. Last year the disease killed a child every 39 seconds.

Nine million children could die in a decade unless the world acts on pneumonia

However, half of these deaths would be averted by significantly scaling up services which can prevent and treat pneumonia, saving 3.2 million lives.

Researchers also found boosting services that can prevent and treat pneumonia would create an additional ‘ripple effect’, preventing 5.7 million extra child deaths from other major childhood diseases at the same time.

Health interventions aimed at improving nutrition, providing antibiotics and increasing vaccine coverage, boosting breastfeeding rates – key measures that reduce the risk of children dying from pneumonia – would also prevent millions of child deaths from diseases like diarrhoea, sepsis and measles.

Announcements made at the forum will include a new, more affordable, PCV vaccine from the Serum Institute of India and political commitments from governments in high-burden countries to develop national strategies to achieve the target of three child pneumonia deaths per 1,000 births by 2030.

9 million deaths could occur from pneumonia in the next decade


Outdoor air pollution contributes to 17.5 per cent – or nearly one in five – pneumonia deaths worldwide, according to an IHME-GBD study. Household pollution from the indoor use of solid cooking fuels contributes to an additional 195,000 (29.4%) deaths.

Ninety-one per cent of the world’s population is breathing outdoor air that exceeds WHO standards. The scale of the air pollution challenge could potentially undermine the impact of scaling up pneumonia-related interventions.

According to the modelling, of the 8.9 million deaths from all causes that could be averted over the next decade, 3.9 million would be the result of greater efforts to reduce levels of malnutrition alone.

These results show what is possible. It would be morally indefensible to stand and allow millions of children continue to die for want of vaccines, affordable antibiotics and routine oxygen treatment.


Quique Bassat, Research Professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and Chair of the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia: 

“The disease that kills most children in the world cannot be neglected any longer in terms of its scarce global research funding. Research and innovation need to drive policy change, and lead the way for further decreases in pneumonia-attributable mortality.”

Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF:

If we are serious about saving the lives of children, then we have to get serious about fighting pneumonia. This means not only focusing on the fights we know we can win – making sure children get enough to eat, that they are breastfed and have access to the appropriate vaccines and antibiotics, but also the bigger challenges, like air pollution. Thousands of children are dying of pneumonia simply because of the dirty air they breathe from birth.”

Leith Greenslade, Co-ordinator of the Every Breath Counts Coalition:

“This analysis shows that collective action to protect children from pneumonia could really boost national efforts to achieve the SDG for child survival. Governments and international development agencies must act urgently to protect the most vulnerable children from malnutrition and exposure to air pollution, and ensure that they receive pneumonia-fighting vaccines and speedy diagnosis, child-friendly antibiotics and oxygen if they become sick. If they don’t, 9 million children’s lives are at stake.”

Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance:

Pneumococcal pneumonia is an easily preventable, often treatable disease – no parent should go through the agony of losing their child to this disease. Over the past decade we have made progress in boosting the number of children receiving lifesaving pneumococcal vaccine and it is vital that we keep up these efforts to protect the next generation against this deadly disease. Gavi’s donor pledging conference in June will offer the international community the chance to help us do so.”

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