One of the many memories I have as a child growing up in the Pacific Northwest is having to walk to the bus stop in the Winter with a scarf wrapped around my head — an itchy scarf that I hated. However, my mother could see me at the bus stop from the kitchen window, so I had to keep it on because — her words, “If I didn’t keep my ears covered, I was going to catch pneumonia!”
If my six-year-old self had known what I know now, I probably would have rebuked with, “Pneumonia doesn’t come from the cold!” (rates are highest in India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), and “You don’t catch it through your ears!” However, maybe she did have some reason to be concerned because pneumonia is the number one infectious killer* of children under the age of 5.
In 2013, 940,000 children under 5 died of pneumonia — a disease that is preventable and curable. To put this number into perspective, pneumonia is responsible for about 15 percent of under 5 deaths globally, compared to about 10 percent for diarrhea and six percent for malaria. Pneumonia is a disease that brings concern here in the U.S., but it is often curable with antibiotics and if children are healthy, they are less vulnerable. Children who are severely malnourished are nine times more likely to die from malnutrition.
Pneumonia does not thrive in developed countries (98 percent of cases are in the developing world) because we have easy access to the things that prevent pneumonia — soap and water to wash hands, safe drinking water, and good sanitation. Mothers are able to space pregnancies so they can breastfeed for six months to build their child’s immune system, and most children have the nutrition they need. People at high risk can receive pneumonia vaccines, and when someone does catch pneumonia, they have easy access to doctors and antibiotics. Even though the itchy scarf probably was not one of them, there were many ways I was protected from pneumonia during my childhood.
For children without access to the things we often take for granted, the story is not as simple. Even though it was not necessarily logical, at least my mother felt that she had a way to protect me. For the hundreds of thousands of mothers who lose their children to pneumonia each year, they struggle. They may not have access to clean water, that would help prevent the disease. They may make the difficult choice to cook for their family — provide warmth, and sterilize water using a wood-burning stove, even though it increases their child’s risk of contracting the disease. Or, they may live in a rural area where there simply is not any access to healthcare.
The Reach Every Mother and Child Act of 2015 is one way you can help. This bill, currently in Congress, will put measures in place to effectively work with communities to bring simple, low-cost, proven interventions to the mothers and children who need it most.
*This piece was originally posted stating that pneumonia is the number one killer of children under the age of 5. Premature birth is the number one killer of children under the age of five and pneumonia is the number one infectious killer.