Pneumonia: What do we know?

Photo credit: CNS
Alice Tembe, CNS Special Correspondent, Swaziland
Pneumonia has been noted as one of the most deadly infectious illness for children worldwide, with an estimated 900,000 children dying of pneumonia this year. Dr Amita Pandey, a Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at K G Medical University, India, presented statistical data showing the incidence of pneumonia in children under five to be approximately 156 million new episodes each year and WHO estimates that death due to pneumonia occurs in 1 in 3 cases. The Director of Policy, Advocacy and Communication at IVAC, Lois Privor-Dumm further indicates that every minute, six children die from pneumonia or diarrhea. The burden of pneumonia screams for attention.

Well, what do we know?

It is both a disappointment and relief that the treatment of pneumonia is so typically simple and low cost with antibiotics costing less than US$0.50. This means that even in developing countries, where resources may be limited, deaths due to pneumonia could have been and can still be averted.

At the Mbabane Government Hospital, a mother explained that 13 days ago she rushed into the Out-patients Department, carrying her 3 years old daughter almost lifeless in her arms. She did not know what was wrong with her child, the pneumonia diagnosis did not mean much to her and so she prayed and hoped that her child will live. Thirteen days later, when I met Busisiwe Khumalo, processing discharge papers for her baby, she exclaimed, ‘God gave her back to me’.

She still had almost information to identify and manage, or prevent, future incidences of pneumonia. Pneumonia in an infectious disease which can be caused by bacteria and viruses already present in the body or transmitted from an infected person through droplets in the air. While the most common infections are due to Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus, there are bacterial, viral and fungal causes too. In most cases of infection patients show symptoms of:

(i) Labored breathing due to puss and fluid flooding the lungs
(ii) Retraction rather than expansion of chest during inhalation
(iii) Fever, sweating and shaking chills
(iv) Coughing which may produce phlegm
(v) Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and fatigue

Thankfully, pneumonia can be prevented and cured. Basic interventions like immunization, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months to build the child’s immune system, good hygiene and sanitation practices like hand washing and eliminating parental smoking and indoor air pollution can go a long way in minimizing chances of infection.

At this point, there is a vast need for public health education to know more about childhood pneumonia, to be able to prevent, identify symptoms and manage cases of infection. With adequate political will, deaths due to pneumonia can be halted and another generation may live on.

Alice Tembe, CNS Special Correspondent, Swaziland
3 December 2015