Avert 140,000 child deaths from pneumonia: Unicef

An approximated 140,000 children in Bangladesh might die in the next decade unless more is done to fight pneumonia, a new analysis shows. Malnutrition, air pollution and lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics among the drivers of preventable deaths from pneumonia, which, according to the Unicef, last year killed one child every hour in Bangladesh.

Boosting efforts to fight pneumonia could avert those deaths from pneumonia and other major diseases in Bangladesh, the UN children agency said. The modelling by Johns Hopkins University was released on Wednesday as nine leading health and children’s agencies host the world’s first global conference on childhood pneumonia in Barcelona.

Johns Hopkins University’s Lives Saved Tool (LiST) is designed to estimate lives saved from maternal and child health interventions. Rather than providing a simple linear projection, it estimates what the profile of child pneumonia deaths in 2030 will look like according to population risk factors such as malnutrition, vaccination rates and health care seeking.

For this analysis, two projections have been performed: (1) ‘business as usual’ projections where the rates of progress against key risk factors for pneumonia continue to rise at their historical trends until 2030; (2) a ‘scale-up’ scenario where 19 health and nutrition interventions with a direct impact on reducing child pneumonia deaths, such as vaccination or access to antibiotics, achieve 100 percent coverage by 2030.

Forecasts show that over 100,000 children under the age of five could die from pneumonia over the next decade in Bangladesh, on current trends. However, an estimated 48,000 of these deaths would be averted by significantly scaling up services to prevent and treat pneumonia.

Researchers also found boosting pneumonia services would create an additional ‘ripple effect’, preventing almost 92,000 extra child deaths from other major childhood diseases at the same time. Interventions like improving nutrition, increasing vaccine coverage or boosting breastfeeding rates – key measures that reduce the risk of children dying from pneumonia – would also stop thousands of child deaths from diseases like diarrhoea (25,000) and sepsis (33,000).

By 2030, that effect would be so large that pneumonia interventions alone would avert almost 140,000 predicted under-five child deaths in Bangladesh from all causes combined, researchers said. Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid.

The disease is a leading killer of children in Bangladesh, causing 13 percent of under-five deaths. Most pneumonia deaths can be prevented with vaccines, and easily treated with low-cost antibiotics. But very few one-year-olds in Bangladesh are unvaccinated, and more than half of children suffering from pneumonia symptoms do not get access to medical treatment.

“The number of lives that could be saved is potentially far higher as the modelling did not take account of factors like availability of medical oxygen, or action to reduce levels of air pollution, a major risk factor for pneumonia,” Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children, said, in a statement.

“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.” Tomoo Hozumi, Representative of UNICEF, said: “The poorest and most deprived children in Bangladesh are most at risk of pneumonia deaths."

"Children from the poorest households are half as likely to seek care and twice as likely to die before their fifth birthday as compared to children from the richest households. Progress to stop children dying from pneumonia is not fast enough and not fair enough," Hozumi said.

"A multisectoral approach and coordinated plan is required in the areas of health, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and air-pollution. UNICEF, together with Save the Children and other partners, supports the Government of Bangladesh in efforts to combat childhood pneumonia.”