The leading killer of children under 5

Jenny, 2, lies in bed with a respiratory infection in the pediatric ward of National Referral Hospital in Honiara, on Guadalcanal Island, Solomon Islands. Photo: UNICEF

by Jeremy Brennan, RESULTS Global Health Campaign Manager

Today is the sixth annual World Pneumonia Day.

Did you know that pneumonia is the leading killer of children under 5 years old? Of the 6.3 million children who died last year before reaching their fifth birthday, over a million died of pneumonia.

What makes this shocking statistic worse is that pneumonia is solvable. We have the safe, effective and affordable tools necessary to help prevent children from contracting pneumonia and to treat those suffering with this illness.

By far the best buy in public health is vaccines. The biggest cause of pneumonia disease and death is a bacterium called Streptococcus pneumonia. It is preventable by vaccine.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), is a global partnership of governments and private industry that work to provide affordable vaccines to children in the poorest countries of the world. Since they began their work in 2000, Gavi has supported the vaccination of nearly half a billion children around the world.

One of the major benefits of having the scale and contacts of Gavi is having the ability to get newly developed vaccines produced and distributed, and in fact, pneumococcal vaccine is one of their outstanding accomplishments.

Once you have developed a brand new vaccine, how do you scale up manufacture and uptake? Generally, vaccines are developed for the so called ‘first world’. It usually take 10-15 years to reach the developing world’s markets.

To speed this up, in one special case, Gavi used what is called the “Advanced Market Commitment”. This means they pre-paid for hundreds of millions of doses of the pneumonia vaccine at a predetermined price, as an incentive for pharmaceutical companies to invest a final push into developing and manufacturing the vaccine.

Thanks to the work of Gavi, its donors and partners, the world’s poorest children are now receiving the newest pneumococcal vaccines nearly simultaneously with children in developed countries.

Gavi has estimated that 50,000 future deaths will have been averted by next year.

RESULTS believes that Gavi is one of the best ways Australia can invest our foreign aid budget to save lives and strengthen economies.

Australia has been a strong supporter of Gavi since 2006 and two weeks ago, the Coalition government made clear their continuing support for Gavi by investing an additional $50 million.

Let me re-iterate: we have the tools to prevent these deaths. The vaccines are out there, sitting on shelves in factories, waiting. The one million children who died from pneumonia this year didn’t die because they were unlucky enough to be infected with a disease the world has never seen before, like Ebola. They died because the vaccine was not available to them, or they were too poor to afford it. 99% of deaths of children from pneumonia occur in low- and middle-income countries – those of us in Australia with access to top-notch medical care rarely lose our toddlers to it.

Some of the countries with the highest number of children who die from pneumonia are in our own region: 178,000 Indian, 32,000 Chinese, and 68,000 Pakistani children died last year.

Pneumonia kills more children under 5 than any other infectious disease. This is unacceptable. Mechanisms like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are instrumental in fighting pneumonia and ending these senseless deaths.

Gavi has estimated that by providing pneumococcal vaccine in 25 countries, including Papua New Guinea, 1.5 million deaths will be averted by 2020. That’s nearly the entire population of Perth, alive because of pneumococcal pneumonia vaccines.

This momentum must be maintained at Gavi’s conference in January, where donors, including Australia, will come together to strengthen Gavi’s vaccination efforts.

 

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