Commentary: American leaders and poor children deserve the same opportunity to beat pneumonia

Yesterday we were saddened to learn that former President George H.W. Bush was hospitalized with pneumonia. While the majority of people affected by pneumonia in the US are adults, around the world each day this condition claims the lives of an estimated 2,500 children under age 5.

Back in September, when Secretary Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign due to pneumonia, I wrote about the under-recognized toll this illness takes on communities around the world. As we find ourselves on the eve of a new presidential administration, it’s imperative to repeat the message and remind policymakers of the common needs of families around the world.

Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, is exceedingly common around the world, with an estimated 450 million cases annually. In the US, we have ready access to trained physicians with the know-how and equipment to make a diagnosis and, when necessary, we have antibiotics and oxygen therapy to treat illness. These interventions have been proven effective, and the vast majority of people who contract pneumonia in the US make a full recovery.

Sadly, this is not true everywhere. In impoverished countries, timely, appropriate, and affordable treatment is often not available, especially for young children whose course of illness can take a downturn very quickly. In parts of Africa and Asia resources are scarce, and HIV infections, crowding, and indoor air pollution are prevalent and put people at risk. The prevention measures we take for granted, such as vaccines and hand washing, are too often not available. The price of pneumonia in these countries is higher infection rates, more illness and, sadly, more deaths, especially in children younger than 5 years of age.

Over the past 15 years, public health professionals and policymakers have been able to assure significant progress. Vaccines to prevent the deadliest causes of pneumonia are rapidly being deployed in countries in most need—thanks to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and country governments. Gavi, to which the US government is a major contributor, makes it possible for low-income countries to buy and deploy tens of millions of doses of life-saving vaccines, including against pneumonia, to millions of children. As more children have access to vaccines and medicine to prevent and treat pneumonia, we see less disease, fewer lives lost, more families climbing out of poverty and fewer families thrown back into the downward cycle of poverty which is otherwise incurred simply by trying to get medical care to save their child’s life.

Yet, much work remains. More than 900,000 young children still lose their lives to pneumonia each year. These children need access to the same tools as our own children to prevent, diagnose, and treat this common illness.

More than anything else, we must put pneumonia on our collective radar as a global health problem that requires attention—not just when there’s a new media headline. How many people know that globally pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under 5 years of age? Pneumonia is so common that it’s nearly invisible.

Can this change? Absolutely. We have the opportunity to raise the profile of this illness and reveal just how pervasive it is. We hope President Bush makes a speedy and full recovery. Meanwhile we continue to advocate for adequate resources for families, governments, and communities everywhere to prevent and treat this illness. What improves the lives of people in countries around the world is also good for the US. It’s simple: Hopeful, healthy communities create a world where we all thrive, including here at home.

Kate O’Brien, MD, MPH, is the Executive Director of the International Vaccine Access Center and Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist and vaccinologist.