By Dr. Kate O’Brien

This week scientists came together to declare that we will eradicate polio in 5 years. It’s an achievable goal, and admittedly an aspirational one. But, if we as a global community leverage proven strategies and follow through on commitments made, it will be met. It is amazing to think that this goal, which just two decades ago seemed impossible to many, is now firmly in our sights. It also gives me confidence that we can reach other goals, such as reducing preventable childhood deaths to a degree that any such death is seen as a shocking, rare event rather than predictable and intractable. This challenge, which the global health community laid out in last year’s Promise Renewed initiative may seem daunting, given that despite recent declines, 6.9 million children died in 2011. However, when you consider that worldwide polio cases have dropped by 99% since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988, it is clear these problems are surmountable. Like polio eradication, we need a concrete approach to tackling the leading child killers, and we made a big step forward with today’s launch of the Integrated Global Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD). Released by WHO and UNICEF, GAPPD clearly outlines the steps we must take to eliminate the two leading killers of young children in 20 years.

GAPPD cover

The Integrated Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD)

Most of my professional life has been spent assessing and applying interventions to reduce pneumonia and diarrhea, both in the United States among American Indian communities and around the world in the communities where most child deaths still occur. I’ve seen the burden of these diseases in the numbers we calculate and on the faces of the patients I’ve treated. I’ve also seen that we have the tools we need to stop children from dying or suffering from severe pneumonia and diarrhea. When I worked in Haiti, the ward was full of children, over a third of whom would die in those beds. Nearly all of the illnesses these children had were fully preventable, mostly through the use of vaccines but also through other simple, sensible interventions. The interventions we have work, and the task we have is to figure out how to use them most effectively, to know if what we are doing is working, and to make adjustments in optimizing their impact. This feedback loop can only be put in place when we can measure the impact of what we’re doing. We may not be able to measure with absolute precision, but with enough precision to know if our time and treasure is being wisely spent.

We know what we need to do to tackle pneumonia and diarrhea, and establishing clear evidence on the burden of disease and on interventions that work creates the platform from which we can prioritize our efforts. A new series published in the Lancet today in conjunction with GAPPD provides updated evidence on this front. One of the papers, led by faculty in our Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins provides updated mortality estimates for pneumonia and diarrhea – together responsible for more than 2 million child deaths in 2011.

We also have a clear understanding of which interventions work, and we know that many of them overlap. As my colleague Bob Black pointed out in the Lancet series launch, while diarrhea and pneumonia have very different symptoms and causes, several risk factors for the two diseases are the same, including under-nutrition, suboptimal breastfeeding, and zinc deficiency, meaning that they can be effectively prevented and treated as part of a coordinated program. We also know that vaccination campaigns will play an important role. A second paper in the Lancet evaluated 15 key interventions using the Lives Saved Tool. It found that nearly one third of severe diarrhea episodes could be prevented by widespread vaccination against rotavirus and cholera, while up to two thirds of pneumonia deaths could be prevented by implementation of pneumococcal and Haemophilus influenzae type b vaccines. With ambitious scale-up – 80% coverage or more – the authors estimated all 15 interventions could effectively eliminate (95% prevented) diarrheal deaths and prevent around two-thirds of pneumonia deaths by 2025. All this at a total cost of just USD6.7 billion.

GAPPD and the Lancet series reflect years of work toward a consensus among all stakeholders that we must target our efforts on proven interventions, and we must work together in an integrated way. Many of the interventions for childhood diseases overlap, and can be delivered more efficiently if all parties work together. This integration will not only result in better care for each child, it is also crucial in resource-poor settings, where countries simply cannot afford to maintain siloed efforts and where partnering countries and organizations are increasingly demanding more impact for their investments.

We have the evidence, and our marching orders are clear. With polio eradication beckoning our efforts, it is the time to leverage this energy, know-how, and confidence by fulfilling our promises and advocating for all stakeholders – donors, governments, civil society, and other leaders – to fulfill theirs. We can all take inspiration and insight from polio eradication efforts and make the end of preventable pneumonia and diarrhea deaths a reality.

 

Kate O’Brien, MD, MPH is Acting Executive Director of IVAC. A pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist, and vaccinologist, she previously served as Deputy Director of IVAC. She also serves as Associate Director of the Center for American Indian Health.