UNICEF identifies key interventions in addressing pneumonia, diarrhea

Last June 8, 2012, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report titled, “Pneumonia and diarrhea: tackling the deadliest diseases for the world's poorest children” which presented interventions that could overcome the battle against two leading killers of the world’s youngest children - pneumonia and diarrhea.

Pneumonia and diarrhea is responsible for 29 percent of deaths among children under five worldwide or more than 2 million deaths a year. The report said that nearly 90 percent of the children who die from the two diseases live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

According to the report, pneumonia and diarrhea share risk factors – poverty, undernutrition and poor home environments.   Undernourished children are more susceptible to death and severe illnesses due to pneumonia and diarrhea. For pneumonia, undernutrition weakens the respiratory muscles needed to clear secretions in the respiratory tract while, for diarrhea, it places children at higher risk of more severe, frequent and prolonged illness.

Key interventions such as adequate nutrition for mothers and children, promotion of breastfeeding and vaccination against measles, micronutrients supplementation such as zinc and vitamin A, hand washing with soap, provision of safe drinking water and nationwide sanitation were identified as effective methods of prevention.

The report noted that exclusive breastfeeding is one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect the babies from disease during the first six months of life. “Infants not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die due to pneumonia than are exclusively breastfed children.” In developing countries, only 37 percent of infants less than six months of age are exclusively breastfed.

Similarly, micronutrients, including zinc and vitamin A, are critical for normal growth and development children in low-income countries. “Evidence shows that zinc is beneficial in managing acute or persistent diarrhea in children ages six to 59 months and reduces the incidence of acute lower respiratory infection among children under age five. Vitamin A, on the other hand, reduces children’s risk of measles-associated pneumonia,” the report noted.

Hand washing with soap and water, on the other hand, is considered the most cost-effective health intervention in lowering incidences of diarrhea. According to the report, “There is consistent evidence that hand washing with soap at critical times– including before eating, preparing food and feeding a child and after using the toilet– can substantially reduce the risk of diarrhea.”

“We know what works against pneumonia and diarrhea - the two illnesses that hit the poorest hardest. Scaling up simple interventions could overcome two of the biggest obstacles to increasing child survival, help give every child a fair chance to grow and thrive,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director.

UNICEF also reiterated that the report is a call to action against the two childhood diseases, “A global action plan will be released next year and set out a clear and integrated vision for pneumonia and diarrhea control and support global advocacy efforts.”