Kenya: Pneumonia Still the Leading Child-Killer Despite Advances in Medicine

Pneumonia (file photo).
31 January 2020

After every 39 seconds, the life of a child is lost to pneumonia. This is according to the latest data by the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef).

The 2018/2019 data released Thursday revealed that six per 1,000 live births, under-five mortality rate were due to pneumonia in 2018, accounting for 15 per cent of child deaths. It was the second biggest killer of children under five in 2017.

This is still far from the global target as envisaged under the Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD), which indicates that by 2025, the target pneumonia mortality rate for under-fives should reduce to 3 per 1,000 live births.

The data also revealed that children born in Homa Bay, where the mortality rate is 119 per 1,000 live births, are five times more likely to die before the age of five than children in Kajiado where the mortality rate is 22 per 1000 live births.

Ms Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of Unicef, said: "If we are serious about saving the lives of children, we have to get serious about fighting pneumonia. As the current coronavirus outbreak shows, this means improving timely detection and prevention."

"It means making the right diagnosis and prescribing the right treatment. It also means addressing the major causes of pneumonia deaths like malnutrition, lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics, and tackling the more difficult challenge of air pollution." This comes as the world fights a pneumonia like virus, the novel coronavirus, which has so far claimed 132 lives with 6,065 confirmed cases globally. To date, pneumonia remains a "captain of the men of death" as no other infectious disease claims the lives of more children than it does in the world. The vast majority of these children are from poor families.

In 2016 in Kenya, 11,203 children under the age of five died of pneumonia, according to data from the Global Burden of Diseases, a slight reduction from the 14,972 who died in 2010.

Most pneumonia deaths occurred in Kakamega (818), Meru (674), Nakuru (593), Mandera (566) and Homa Bay (534 deaths). In 2017, pneumonia was responsible for 21,584 deaths according to the Economic Survey 2018, accounting for 22 per cent of deaths, and standing as the leading cause of death for the third year in a row. Pneumonia is inflammation of air sacs in the lungs, caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi.

However, with a vaccine introduced in 2011 to protect children against 10 strains of bacteria that cause severe pneumonia, one would wonder why, despite a reduction, a preventable and curable disease still kills so many every year.

"Most of the affected children come from poor families who live far from health facilities. They die because of delays in seeking appropriate treatment," says Dr Peter Okoth, a specialist in child health.

"The disease leaves desperately vulnerable children fighting for breath as their parents wrestle with anxiety, and all too often, the distress, grief and trauma that comes with loss," added Dr Okoth. The Unicef data revealed that malnutrition, air pollution and lack of access to vaccines and antibiotics are among the drivers of preventable deaths from pneumonia.

However, according to a report published by Save the Children last November, the reasons for these deaths are the inaccurate diagnosis, shortages of front-line antibiotics and weak referral systems.

When diagnosed accurately and early, pneumonia can be treated with a three- to five-day course of antibiotics that costs less than Sh200. "Children die from pneumonia because they are denied the benefits of prevention, accurate diagnosis and treatment. Most hospitals do not have the necessary drugs for prevention," noted the study.

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