Over the last 15 years, the international community has made great strides in improving child health. But, with millions of children under the age of five dying each year from preventable and treatable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia, the job is far from finished.
Child Health | Causes of early death
According to the recently published 2016 Pneumonia and Diarrhoea Progress Report, the two diseases caused 1.4 million child deaths last year, and one-quarter of all deaths of children under the age of five. They exact their highest toll in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Child Health | Extent of the problem
Just 15 countries account for 72% of childhood deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea. These are the countries on which the Pneumonia and Diarrhoea Progress Report focuses. Its analysis of national efforts shows that, while most countries have made improvements over the last year, improvement in some of the largest countries has been minimal, and a few countries have not made any progress at all. Most deaths happen in the first two years of a child’s life.
Child Health | The way forward
An age-old, no-cost intervention, breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months of a baby’s life is one of the easiest ways to prevent both diarrhoea and pneumonia. Breast milk has all the nutrients babies need to grow, as well as antibodies that boost their immune systems, thereby protecting against illness and helping to accelerate recovery. The Progress Report estimates that about half of all diarrhoea episodes, and about a third of respiratory infections, could be averted by breastfeeding.
How to increase breastfeeding rates?
Governments need to ensure that mothers receive the guidance and help they need. That means training health workers; establishing community-level support networks, such as mother-to-mother groups; investing in behavioural-change campaigns; and creating a culture in which breastfeeding is welcome and encouraged.
The second critical intervention is improved water, sanitation, and hygiene in homes and communities. Globally, according to UNICEF, around 2.4 billion people still do not have access to modern sanitation, and 663 million do not have access to safe water sources. Many kids still lack clean drinking water, access to basic toilets, and good hygiene practices. Poor water quality and lack of reliable sanitation systems to treat human waste play a big role in spreading diseases. UNICEF reports that something as simple as hand washing with soap can cut rates of diarrhoea and respiratory infections by more than 40% and 25%, respectively.
Benefits of sanitation
By investing not only in systems to provide clean drinking water and sanitation, but also in educational programs that encourage better hygiene practices and toilet use, governments can break a vicious cycle of diarrhoea and malnutrition that causes irreversible physical and cognitive damage. The children they help are more likely to be able to attend school, and grow into healthy, educated adults.
The third key intervention is vaccination. Vaccines represent the most cost-effective intervention for preventing childhood illness, and they already exist for most common bacterial causes of pneumonia (pneumococcus and Hib) and for the leading causes of diarrhoea (rotavirus). Yet half of the world’s children live in areas where the pneumococcal vaccine is not available through a national immunization program, and only 15% of the children in the world’s poorest countries have access to the rotavirus vaccine.
What the Government can do?
By making vaccines available through national immunisation programs, governments can protect all children from the diseases that are most likely to harm or kill them. Efforts to ensure that families take advantage of vaccination services, including by educating parents about their value, will also be needed.
Pneumonia and diarrhoea should not still be taking children’s lives. No single intervention will be enough. But the accelerated and coordinated implementation of the three interventions described here could go a long way toward preventing pneumonia and diarrhoea, especially for the most vulnerable children, enabling them to lead healthy, productive lives.
Governments need to step up their efforts to prevent pneumonia and diarrhoea, including by ensuring that parents have access to the information they need to protect their children. Here, it is critical that ordinary citizens stand up and hold their governments accountable.