Pneumonia: No friend of mine

My British friends sometimes refer to pneumonia as “old man’s friend”, because it can bring swift and painless death to elderly patients who become unconscious and slip away in their sleep.

But 98.5 percent of pneumonia deaths actually happen in the developing world and pneumonia is not a friend.

In fact pneumonia is the world’s biggest killer of children, filling their little lungs until breathing becomes difficult and painful. It kills 1.5 million children under five every year.

But as we observed World Pneumonia Day this year on Saturday 12 November, we celebrated the fact that vaccines against pneumococcal disease, the biggest cause of pneumonia, are finally reaching the children that need them most.

Almost a year ago, in December 2010, Nicaragua became the first of 15 developing countries so far to have introduced the pneumococcal vaccine. By the end of next year, 13.6 million children in developing countries will have been immunised against the leading cause of pneumonia.

The idea that vaccines can save lives is not a new idea, of course. In the last 30 years or so, immunisation has brought profound drops in the incidence of many diseases, including measles, polio, and tetanus. It has also eradicated smallpox.

As the CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership focused on saving children’s lives by increasing access to immunisation in poor countries, I’m proud to say that – with magnificent support from the British government – we have made available these pneumococcal vaccines to children in the world’s poorest countries.

By concluding long-term supply agreements, our Advance Market Commitment (AMC) has reduced market uncertainty, encouraging manufacturers to develop adequate production capacity and to supply at drastically lower prices.

By some estimates these vaccines are now reaching developing countries about 10 to 15 years earlier than they would otherwise have done.

Breast-feeding, better nutrition, and antibiotics are also key to reducing the burden of pneumonia deaths in the developing world.

But when isolation and lack of resources mean medical care is hard to access, immunisation becomes even more important. GAVI also supports vaccines against Hib, measles, and whooping cough, which help reduce the pneumonia burden.

The pneumococcal vaccines alone could save as many as 7 million child lives by 2030.

Like the other vaccines that we support, pneumococcal vaccines help save lives and protect the health of communities. And by protecting families from disease and disability, we are also saving them the costs of expensive medical care and treatment, preventing many of them from sliding deeper into poverty.

In our first decade of work, GAVI has helped countries immunise nearly 300 million children so far. And the British government’s US$ 2.5 billion contributions to GAVI equal about a third of our total income.

My British friends and I agree: no child should die of a disease we can prevent.

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