Time to Change the Face of Pneumonia

Time to Change the Face of Pneumonia

by Dr. Chizoba Wonodi, MD, PhD

On November 12, the world will mark the 3rd World Pneumonia Day. On that day, I will be thinking about all the faces of pneumonia I know and about Precious, a cute 1-year old I met last year in Lagos, Nigeria.

I met Precious at a seminar we organized for pneumonia advocates; her mother brought her to shine a light on the real lives and families touched by pneumonia. Precious’ ordeal began innocuously as a fever, which her mother thought was malaria.

After two days of malaria treatment, her condition worsened, deteriorating so fast that by the time she was rushed to hospital, the little girl was barely breathing and merely hanging on to life. She had pneumonia – the worst kind. The infection raging in her lungs had taken it over, collapsed it and filled it with fluid. It took 30 days of hospitalization, intravenous antibiotics, a draining tube stuck in her little chest and 7,000 dollars to save the girl’s life.

Precious was lucky. She was lucky to have had proper medical care when it mattered most. Her mother, a poorly paid cleaner, could never have afforded the treatment Precious needed, but because she worked for a private hospital, Precious was treated for free and survived. Sadly, many Nigerian children are not that fortunate and as a result, every year, pneumonia kills about 177,000 children under five years of age. Pneumonia is one of the top three reasons why some Nigerian children never get to see their fifth birthday.

If we can prevent pneumonia from happening in the first place, we can save more lives. Vaccination is one of many ways to prevent pneumonia. One opportunity to do just that is around the corner. By next April, the Nigerian government, with help from friends like the GAVI Alliance, will introduce a vaccine that thwarts infection by a bacterium called Haemophilus Influenza (Hib), which causes pneumonia and meningitis.

With this move, Nigerian infants of all stripes – rich, poor, urban or rural – will soon have access to this life-saving vaccine, just like their peers in other parts of Africa. We are finally making progress but there is much more to be done. In particular, another powerful pneumonia vaccine, the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) is waiting in the wings. Other African countries like the Gambia, Kenya and Rwanda have introduced PCV and the Nigerian Government also has plans to follow suit in a few years.

We must do everything to support this momentum, by ensuring that these vaccines get to every child and to the most remote reaches of the country. We can work together to change the face of pneumonia from one of suffering and death to one of health and well-being. You don’t have to be a mother to imagine the gut wrenching pain of losing your child to a disease that could have been prevented; you don’t have to be an epidemiologist to know that pneumonia kills too many of our children; you don’t have to be a professional activist to add your voice and take action against pneumonia. What can you do? Start by using our advocacy tool to tell your elected representatives that they need to preserve funding for child health and maternal mortality programs in the upcoming budget. Follow us on Facebook to learn more.

Dr. Wonodi is an Epidemiologist and works on Nigeria Projects at The International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.