Colds and flu

Updated 04 February 2016

Pneumonia - the big child killer of our time

Pneumonia is the single biggest child-killer in the world, claiming the lives of 1 million children under the age of five every year.

More children die from the lung infection pneumonia than from HIV/Aids, diarrhea and malaria combined.

In numbers, this translates to 1 million children under the age of five globally every year. That is one child every 35 seconds with 99% of all deaths occurring in the developing world.   

Yet pneumonia, which is also the leading cause of flu-related hospitalisations in the US, is not only preventable but also treatable.

What is pneumonia?

Pneumonia is an infection that inflames the lungs and the most common cause of pneumonia is a pneumococcal infection, caused by bacteria called Streptococcus pneumoniae.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) , common symptoms of pneumonia include:

- Fever of 38.5°C or more with chills or shaking.
- Cough, which often produces sputum from the airways. The colour of the phlegm may be green or rusty, occasionally with blood specks. However, sometimes no sputum is produced.
- Night sweats.
- Shallow, rapid breathing and rapid heart rate.
- Chest pain, which is worsened on inhalation or coughing. This may be only on one side and felt deep in the chest.
- Tiredness, body weakness (general malaise), confusion (particularly in the elderly).

Undernourished children, particularly those not exclusively breastfed or with inadequate zinc intake, are at higher risk of developing pneumonia.  Similarly, children and infants suffering from other illnesses, such as Aids or measles, are more likely to develop pneumonia. Environmental factors, such as living in crowded homes and exposure to parental smoking or indoor air pollution, may also have a role to play in increasing children’s susceptibility to pneumonia and its severe consequences.

Read: Can a flu vaccine protect you from pneumonia too?

Mild cases of pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics, however severe cases may need to be treated in hospital. Good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle can help prevent pneumonia.

Progress in the fight against pneumonia has been slow compared to progress in other leading diseases.

"Over the past 15 years, childhood pneumonia deaths have fallen by 50%. While this signifies impressive progress, it still falls short in comparison to an 85% decline for measles, and 60% for malaria, Aids and tetanus over the same time period."

Making a difference

To help turn the tide against pneumonia, UNICEF together with partners have launched a global campaign called Every Breath Counts.

"The two-year Every Breath Counts campaign will bring pneumonia to the attention of world leaders, policy makers and donors. The campaign will highlight the need to mobilise resources to reduce pneumonia mortality. It will also call for specific policies such as prevention through immunisation and reduction of household air pollution, protection through exclusive breastfeeding and by facilitating community access to effective, timely diagnosis and treatment with amoxicillin and oxygen."

The campaign was launched during the African Union Summit at the General Assembly of the Organisation of African First Ladies against HIV/Aids (OAFLA) and Aisha Muhammadu Buhari, wife of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, is the campaign's first ambassador.

Every Breath Counts focuses its initial efforts in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where 84 percent of childhood pneumonia deaths occur.

Watch: Every Breath Counts campaign

The link between pneumonia and flu

A study in the US, published online in October last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that flu-related pneumonia is the leading cause of flu-related hospital visits.

It suggested that getting a flu vaccine can protect you against both flu and pneumonia.

"Influenza vaccine can substantially reduce the risk of hospitalisations for influenza pneumonia, a serious complication of influenza infections," said lead researcher Dr. Carlos Grijalva, an associate professor of health policy at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.

"We estimate that approximately 57 percent of hospitalisations due to influenza pneumonia could be prevented by influenza vaccination."

For the study, Grijalva and his colleagues collected data on nearly 2,800 patients hospitalised for pneumonia in four U.S. hospitals from January 2010 through June 2012.

Approximately 6 percent of these patients had flu-related pneumonia, while other patients were hospitalised for pneumonia that was not caused by influenza, Grijalva explained.

Also read:

Pneumonia, the ‘silent’ killer

Is it flu or malaria? Don't risk it, doctors warn

Why an ineffective flu remedy is still being advertised in South Africa

Article resources:

Pneumonia is the top killer in children under 5 (n.d.)

Wardlaw, Tessa M.; Johansson, Emily White; Hodge, Matthew; (2006) Pneumonia: the forgotten killer of children

Pneumonia. (2015, November).

Carlos G. Grijalva, Yuwei Zhu, Derek J. Williams, Wesley H. Self, Krow Ampofo, Andrew T. Pavia, Chris R. Stockmann, Jonathan McCullers, Sandra R. Arnold, Richard G. Wunderink, Evan J. Anderson, Stephen Lindstrom, Alicia M. Fry, Ivo M. Foppa, Lyn Finelli, Anna M. Bramley, Seema Jain, Marie R. Griffin, Kathryn M. Edwards (2015, October 13) Association between hospitalisation with community-acquired laboratory-confirmed influenza pneumonia and prior receipt of influenza vaccination


Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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