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Steep drop in pneumonia deaths in last decade, but more must be done to reach the most vulnerable children—UNICEF

2014-11-12

TORONTO, November 12, 2014—Significant declines in child deaths from pneumonia prove that strategies to defeat the disease are working, UNICEF said on the sixth World Pneumonia Day. But much more is needed to stop hundreds of thousands of children from succumbing to this preventable illness each year.

“Canada’s leadership on child and maternal health has contributed to these efforts to reduce child deaths, but the global community must continue to work to reach the most marginalized and vulnerable children—those who have been left behind,” says David Morley, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “We know how important child survival is to Canadians and it’s unacceptable that more than six million children still die from mostly preventable causes every year before reaching their fifth birthday.”

Pneumonia is still among the leading killers of children – accounting for 15 per cent of deaths, or approximately 940,000 children per year – but deaths from the disease have declined by 44 per cent since 2000, according to figures released recently by UNICEF.

“Pneumonia is still a very dangerous disease – it kills more children under five than HIV/AIDS, malaria, injuries and measles combined – and though the numbers are declining, with nearly one million deaths a year, there is no room for complacency,” said Dr. Mickey Chopra, head of UNICEF’s global health programs. “Poverty is the biggest risk factor, and that means our efforts need to reach every child, no matter how marginalized.”

Deaths from pneumonia are highest in poor rural communities. Household air pollution is a major cause of pneumonia, so children from households which rely on solid fuels such as wood, dung or charcoal for cooking or heating, are at high risk. Overcrowded homes also contribute to higher pneumonia levels. In addition, poor children are less likely to be immunized against measles and whooping cough, which are also among major causes of the disease.

Early diagnosis and treatment of pneumonia, and access to health care, will save lives, thus strategies must target low income communities.

The increased use of pneumonia vaccines, particularly in low income countries has led to progress against the disease, but inequities exist even in countries with wide coverage.

“Closing the treatment gap between the poor and the better off is crucial to bringing down preventable deaths from pneumonia,” Dr. Chopra said. “The more we focus on the causes and the known solutions, the faster we will bring this childhood scourge under control.”

UNICEF’s Supply Division has today put out a call to innovators for new, improved and more easily affordable respiratory rate timers to aid in the timely recognition and management of pneumonia.

One simple treatment has had great success: trained community health workers give sick children the antibiotic amoxicillin in a child-friendly tablet form as part of an integrated case management program at the community level. Scaling up the availability of similar inexpensive medicines will help to reduce the treatment gap especially among hard to reach populations.

Simple measures such as early and exclusive breastfeeding, hand washing with soap, vaccination and provision of micronutrients will also reduce the incidence of pneumonia.

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About UNICEF

UNICEF has saved more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization. We work tirelessly to help children and their families, doing whatever it takes to ensure children survive. We provide children with healthcare and immunization, clean water, nutrition and food security, education, emergency relief and more.

UNICEF is supported entirely by voluntary donations and helps children regardless of race, religion or politics. As part of the UN, we are active in over 190 countries - more than any other organization. Our determination and our reach are unparalleled. Because nowhere is too far to go to help a child survive. For more information about UNICEF, please visit www.unicef.ca.

For further information:

Stefanie Carmichael, Communications Specialist, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8866; Cell: (647) 500-4230, scarmichael@unicef.ca.
Tiffany Baggetta, Director, Communications and Brand, (416) 482-6552 ext. 8892; Cell: (647) 308-4806, tbaggetta@unicef.ca.