New Report Details Continued Problems of Childhood Deaths from Pneumonia and Diarrhea

Fifteen countries continue to see 72% of all childhood deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea, the two biggest killers of children under five years of age worldwide, says a new global report.

Pneumonia and diarrheal disease are the two leading causes of death in children under 5 years of age worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Despite some degree of progress, a new report highlights just how pervasive this public health issue is.

While the developed world remains largely outside the epidemic, WHO officials note that pneumonia brought on by bacterial, viral, or fungal pathogens caused the deaths of 920,136 children in 2015 and led to 16% of all deaths in children under 5 years of age, globally. Diarrhea kills about 760,000 children each year, making it the second biggest killer of young children. While public health experts stress that pneumonia can be prevented with vaccines and nutrition, and diarrheal disease prevented by adequate hygiene and safe drinking water, the two diseases continue to end young lives, particularly in areas of South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) have recently released the 2016 Pneumonia and Diarrhea Progress Report: Reaching Goals Through Action and Innovation, detailing the status of these diseases in their seventh annual report. The report was written with regard to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)—namely the goals of focusing on child survival and improving on access to essential medicines and vaccines for all–which went into effect at the start of 2016 and replaced the previous set of Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

The report notes that overall, deaths in children younger than 5 years of age worldwide have decreased by more than half since 1990, dropping from 91 deaths per 1,000 live births to 43 deaths per 1,000 births in 2015. Despite this overall success, the report notes that the persistent danger of pneumonia and diarrhea remain high, and that the two diseases together killed nearly 1.5 million children, equal to about one quarter of all deaths in children under 5 years of age in 2015. Fifteen countries account for 72% of all pneumonia- and diarrhea-related deaths in this young group and have become the focus of the Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhea (GAPPD).

“Pneumonia and diarrhea fly under the radar,” said Kate O'Brien, MD, MPH, a professor in the Bloomberg School’s Department of International Health and IVAC’s executive director in a recent press release. “These illnesses are so common that many people and organizations fail to recognize the need to step up efforts and identify creative solutions to fight them. Although most cases are easily prevented and treated, they often prove deadly when families cannot access basic health services such as vaccines and antibiotic treatment.”

India, Angola, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Niger, and Bangladesh are the six countries that have seen the best improvement in regards to the GAPPD since 2015. Nigeria, DRC, Afghanistan, Chad, Sudan, and Tanzania have made modest progress, while Pakistan, China, and Somalia have made no progress in meeting the goals. By 2030, health officials aim to bring down deaths in children under 5 years of age to at least 25 per 1,000 live births. This and other goals set down by the SDG are not out of reach, but will require a large acceleration of interventions by public health officials.

“Although unprecedented progress has been made in reducing maternal and child mortality, and in the fight against infectious diseases, many country MDG targets were not met,” states the report. “We can learn how to achieve more, by evaluating what went well, and learning from what did not. We are not making progress fast enough if we are serious about meeting the new SDG target on child health of reducing mortality to at least as low as 25 deaths per 1000 live births in children under the age of 5 years.”

Efforts to reach those crucial goals will include increasing the number of vaccines administered, improving availability of life-saving antibiotics, promoting exclusive breastfeeding in infants 6 months of age and younger, and better access to treatment and care.