Happy World Pneumonia Day: It's Preventable, Solvable but Still Kills More Kids than Anything Else

A few years ago my then 3-year old started having trouble breathing during the night.  Not just uncomfortable can't breath-through-stuffy-nose stuff.  The real thing.  What had been a simple cold just hours earlier turned into belabored, chest-heaving breaths that still haunt me.  Ugh, those sucking, watery sounds.  The diagnosis: Pneumonia.  

I'm still amazed at how rapidly he went from being okay to not okay and I wasn't exactly a newbie.  He's my third child so I'd been around the block, had rushed babies to the ER in the middle of the night before but had never experienced pneumonia and hope to not do so again anytime soon if ever.

That's why I didn't hesistate much (okay, a litte, I am a skeptic) when I was invited to join a discussion in honor of World Pneumonia Day 2012 (November 12th) on the disease with Dr. Richard Bessler, the chief medical editor at ABCNews (and the former acting director of the CDC during the H1N1 scare!) and his colleague, Dr. Orin Levine, the Executive Director of the International Vaccines Access Center at Johns Hopkins (whose vitae includes both the CDC and NIH).  Dr. Bessler, a pediatrician and Dr. Levine, an epidemiologist both have extensive backgrounds in children's global public health and not just in advocacy from a warm research lab or office desk but the kind of in-the-trenches experience that has found them in remote villages in Africa witnessing the deaths of far too many children.

Both doctors are part of the Global Coalition against Child Pneumonia that includes such public health heavyweights like the United Nations Foundation, ONE and Save the Children.  These guys are dedicated to treating and preventing pneumonia here and more importantly in developing countries where not only are more children at risk of developing the dangerous lung condition but dying from it.

Every year about 1.4 million kids under 5 die from pneumonia around the world. 
From The World Health Organization

How do you think that compares to AIDS, malaria, TB and the like?  Quick, name the single biggest killer of young kids around the world.

AIDS kills @1.8 million people of all ages each year (2009 data).
Malaria kills @100,000 people of all ages each year (2010 data).

Nothing even close to pneumonia.  

Don't worry if you had no idea because not even the big names working in public health knew.  Turns out the biggest financial donors in global health didn't know. When Doc Levine interviewed the top 29 head honchos in public health not a single one named pneumonia as the number one killer.  Not a single one.  In fact they didn't believe him because it's so rarely in the media spotlight. 

"Pneumonia is the biggest most solvable public health problem in global health...and no one knows about it." - Orin Levine

"Everyone is at risk for pneumonia."  - Orin Levine

"When I do a story on (global health) I get floods of emails and tweets saying "we have issues here, why should we care."  Why should we care? It's so preventable for so little money." - Richard Bessler

"It doesn't take a doctor to recognize pneumonia." - Richard Bessler.

Finally some take-aways:

It's preventable.  Vaccines, nutrition, clean cook stoves, and breastfeeding have all been linked to lower risks.  I take issue with the PROBIT breastfeeding study but not gonna take it on right here. 

It's treatable.  Via vaccines and antibiotics. 

Even big, strong healthy NFL quarterbacks can be sidelined even hospitalized with it.

Anyhow, Happy World Pneumonia Day. 

I know, I'm disappointed too about no bracelets to wear.  Maybe next year.   Maybe I'll break out the Halloween candy we didn't pass out (oh yes, Halloween cancelled here because of freak snow storm, no power for 8 days....don't even get me started). 

Maybe by this time next year the big P will be as glamorous as breast cancer and AIDS.  You know, the whole think pink merchandising thang.  Artists fighting AIDS.  I recommend they change the name or at the very least shorten it, maybe take away the silent P.  Maybe rethink WPD - reminds me of Dick Cheney and his non-existent WMD.

Julia Roberts talking up clean cook stoves is a start. 

You can join the WPD Facebook page, follow them on Twitter, join the Millions Mom Challenge who are also part of the global health scene.  Tell your friends Pneumonia is no joke.  Get your mother the pneumonia vaccine.  Maybe think of a new name for the disease. 

Catch Dr. Levine debunking 5 myths about pneumonia over at HuffPo.  Good stuff.  Check out the do-good doctor's head shot.  Wow, he looks so happy!  After dealing with all the dying kids I'd be rumpled and bitter.

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