The death toll from these deadly but preventable illnesses is concentrated in the poorest regions and countries; nearly 90% of deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Here, children of the poorest families are at greatest risk, since the coverage of vaccinations and effective medical interventions remains patchy, particularly among the most vulnerable communities.
A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) – Pneumonia and diarrhoea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world’s poorest children – highlights how introducing more measures against these killer illnesses could reduce child pneumonia deaths by 30% and diarrhoea deaths by 60% across 75 countries with the highest mortality burden by 2015.
Young children between the ages of six months and two years old are particularly vulnerable to diarrhoea or pneumonia. But deaths from these diseases are largely preventable if children are exclusively breastfeed in the first six months and they receive the right vaccinations. Other important preventative measures include adequate nutrition, hand washing with soap, safe drinking water and basic sanitation. Even once children get sick, cost-effective and life-saving treatments such as antibiotics and solutions made of oral rehydration salts can prevent many deaths.
The UNICEF report has been published ahead of a planned meeting in Washington on child-survival objectives. The meeting, to be attended by around 700 experts, has been convened by the governments of the USA, India and Ethiopia. Delegates will discuss how key pneumonia and diarrhoea interventions can be raised to the level of the richest 20% of households in each country, which could reduce deaths by around 13% overall across the 75 countries by 2015.
To illustrate the difference in child survival between countries with effective interventions and those without, the UNICEF report takes the example of Ethiopia and compares its statistics with Germany. In Germany, approximately 3,000 children under five died in 2010 (4 deaths for every 1,000 live births) and most of these deaths were caused by non-communicable diseases and conditions. In Ethiopia, 271,000 under-fives died in 2010 (106 deaths for every 1,000 live births). Of these deaths, over a third (96,000) were due to pneumonia and diarrhoea and a large proportion of the remaining deaths were from other preventable and treatable infections such as measles, meningitis and sepsis. By presenting facts like these in stark outline, UNICEF hopes to spur leaders of developing nations into action, to ensure “every child [has] a fair chance to grow and thrive”.