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“Forgotten epidemic” hospitalising six children every hour in England. 

Save the Children, 12th November 


·         New report shows pneumonia killed 800,000 children worldwide last year, more than any other disease

·         Poll finds 96% of UK public don’t know pneumonia is biggest child killer, globally

·         Admissions on the rise in England – but vaccinations and access to health care save most children here


LONDON (November 12, 2019) – Six children are being rushed to hospital with pneumonia every hour in England, a report by two leading children’s agencies reveals.

Hospitals in England recorded 56,000 child emergency admissions for the disease last year, a jump of more than 50% compared to the number a decade ago. [1]

Rates of admission were highest in poorer parts of the country. [2]

Catherine Sage’s eight-year-old son, Edward, was rushed to hospital with severe pneumonia earlier this year. Doctors took an x-ray of Edward’s chest, which revealed that his lung had completely collapsed. Catherine, from Loughborough, said:

He woke up in the night gasping for breath. He was making a sound I’d never heard him make before. It was really scary. I knew people were hospitalised for pneumonia but I thought it was only really old people. I had no idea it could be so dangerous for young children. I was surprised how severely ill it made him.”

In 2018, 27 children in England died from pneumonia. [3]

Pneumonia kills more children globally than any other disease, according to new analysis by Save the Children and UNICEF. The disease claimed the lives of 800,000 children under the age of five in 2018, or one child every 39 seconds. 437,000 children aged under five died owing to diarrhoea and 272,000 from malaria. [4]

Despite these staggering figures, a recent poll for Save the Children by Opinium found only 4% of UK adults correctly identified pneumonia as the world’s biggest infectious killer. The majority (34%) believed malaria caused the largest number of child deaths, followed by diarrhoea (18%) and measles (11%). [5]

Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid.

A bout of pneumonia in childhood can dramatically increase the risk of respiratory disease as an adult. [6]

Children with immune systems weakened by other infections or malnutrition, and those living in areas with high levels of air pollution, are at far greater risk of developing the disease.

Pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines, and easily treated with antibiotics costing just 20 pence if properly diagnosed.

But, despite the UK’s leading role in improving access to vaccines and health services, globally, tens of millions of children are still not vaccinated around the world – and one in three with symptoms do not receive essential medical care. [7]

Children with severe cases of pneumonia may also require oxygen treatment, which is rarely available in the poorest countries to the children who need it.

Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children, said:

“These findings show pneumonia is a disease that affects the poorest children worst of all, wherever they are in the world. But while British children almost always survive, millions of children in poor countries are dying for want of vaccines, a few pence worth of antibiotics, and routine oxygen treatment. With such simple solutions, no child should have to die from pneumonia regardless of where they live.”

“This is a forgotten global epidemic that demands an urgent international response. The UK government must continue to invest in global efforts to tackle the pneumonia crisis so that children everywhere can access life-saving healthcare.”

Nick Roseveare, Interim Executive Director of Unicef UK, said:

“We’re lucky in the UK that we have the NHS and a childhood vaccination programme which includes pneumonia and influenza, so fewer children get these illnesses in the first place. If they do get ill, most can be treated within our healthcare system. However, these findings show that for thousands of children outside of the UK pneumonia is not an illness of the past but a killer in the present that will continue to prematurely take children’s lives if we don’t act now.

“Pneumonia can be easily prevented and cured with simple, and cost-effective measures, yet it remains the main infectious cause of death among children under five globally. We can change this, we must change this. We have the knowledge, tools and power to save children from a preventable death.”

The two organisations are calling on the future UK government to increase the proportion of its overseas aid that is spent on healthcare, including a pledge to ensure the replenishment of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which gives children in the poorest countries access to vaccines. In addition, they are urging the future government to step up the fight against malnutrition – the most significant driver of childhood pneumonia – by pledging £800 million a year from 2021 to 2025 at the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo in 2020.

In January a group of nine leading health and children’s organisations will host world leaders at the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia in Spain – the first major summit on pneumonia for more than a decade. [8]


Content and case studies available. For more information or to arrange interviews with spokespeople, please contact:

Ruairidh Villar, Save the Children (London):

+44 (0)20 7012 6841 / +44 (0)7831 650409 (out of hours)

media@savethechildren.org.uk / r.villar@savethechildren.org.uk


[1] Save the Children’s analysis of provisional NHS Digital data for emergency hospital admissions for children aged 18 years and younger. Between April 2018 and March 2019 there were 56,210 emergency admissions for pneumonia, defined as a primary diagnosis at admission of one of the following International Classification of Disease (ICD) codes: J12, J15, J16, J21, J10.0, J11.0, J11.1, J13.X, J14.X, J18.0, J18.1, J18.9. That represents a 50% increase in the last decade. Between April 2008 and March 2009 there were 36,862 child emergency admissions for pneumonia.

[2] In 2017/18, the latest year for which detailed mapping of deprivation to admissions is available, the 10% most deprived areas of England recorded 525.6 admissions for all-cause pneumonia per 100,000 population, compared to 381.2 in the 10% least deprived. The areas worst-affected is the 2018/19 financial year were:

Clinical Commissioning Group

Rate of Admissions (per 100,000 patients)

Number of Admissions

NHS Scarborough and Ryedale CCG



NHS Oldham CCG



NHS Blackpool CCG



NHS South Tees CCG



NHS Heywood, Middleton and Rochdale CCG






[3] Save the Children’s analysis of deaths recorded by the Office for National Statistics in 2018 of children aged 18 years and younger, where pneumonia was the primary cause of death. Defined as one of the following ICD codes: J12, J15, J16, J21, J10.0, J11.0, J11.1, J13.X, J14.X, J18.0, J18.1, J18.9.

[4] UNICEF analysis, based on WHO and Maternal and Child Epidemiology Estimation Group (MCEE) interim estimates produced in September 2019. The top 15 countries by pneumonia deaths for children under the age of five in 2018, were:

Country Name

Estimated number of pneumonia-related deaths in children under five, 2018







Democratic Republic of the Congo












United Republic of Tanzania














Source: UNICEF analysis, based on WHO and Maternal and Child Epidemiology Estimation Group (MCEE) interim estimates

[5] Survey of 2,002 UK adults conducted for Save the Children by Opinium October 22-24, 2019. Weighted to be nationally representative. “Which of the following infectious diseases resulted in the largest number of deaths globally among children under the age of five in 2018?”


34 %


18 %


11 %


10 %


6 %


6 %


4 %


1 %

None of these

11 %

 [7] In 2018, 71 million children did not receive the recommended three doses of Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), putting them at higher risk of pneumonia. Globally, 32% of children with suspected pneumonia are not taken to a health facility. That figure rises to 40% for the poorest children in low- and middle-income countries.

[8] ISGlobal, Save the Children, UNICEF, Every Breath Counts, Unitaid, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance are calling for concrete commitments from high-burden countries and international donors to tackle pneumonia. Together with the ”la Caixa” Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, the group will host the Global Forum on Childhood Pneumonia in Spain on 29-31 January, the first summit on pneumonia for more than decade.

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