In Depth

Why are cases of childhood pneumonia soaring?

Unicef and Save the Children warn of ‘forgotten epidemic’ that claims the lives of two children every month in England

The number of children in England requiring emergency hospital treatment for pneumonia has risen by 50% over the past decade.

A report by six health organisations across the globe highlighted what they call a “forgotten epidemic” of childhood pneumonia, with more than 802,000 children under the age of five dying from the disease in 2018 worldwide – equivalent to 2,200 every day.

In England, the disease is claiming the lives of at least two children every month, with a higher prevalence in more deprived areas.

The charities said the “staggering” number highlights a “forgotten global epidemic that demands an urgent international response”. But why are pneumonia rates increasing?

What is the global picture?

On Monday, the United Nations children’s fund Unicef, international charity Save the Children and four other health agencies published a report in which they analysed data from health services around the world.

The results showed that pneumonia – a bacterial, viral or fungal infection that causes shortness of breath as sufferers’ lungs fill with pus and fluid – claimed the lives of more than 800,000 children under the age of five in 2018, or around one child every 39 seconds.

This makes pneumonia the deadliest childhood disease in the world by a considerable margin: 437,000 children under five die from diarrhoea and 272,000 from malaria.

The researchers found that most pneumonia deaths occurred among children under the age of two, with almost 153,000 deaths recorded within a month of being born. More than half the total deaths were recorded in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia.

Unicef called on governments globally to step up efforts to combat the spread of the disease, which is easily preventable and curable.

“The fact that this preventable, treatable and easily diagnosed disease is still the world’s biggest killer of young children is frankly shocking,” said Seth Berkley, chief executive of the GAVI vaccines alliance, while Save the Children CEO Kevin Watkins added that “millions of children are dying for want of vaccines, affordable antibiotics and routine oxygen treatment”.

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What is the situation in England?

England has not avoided the so-called “forgotten epidemic”. The report revealed that one child is being admitted to hospital every 10 minutes with pneumonia, a 50% increase from 2008-09.

“Despite the UK vaccinating children against bacterial pneumonia, other forms of the disease can still strike and appear to be on the rise,” The Independent says.

The increase will concern medical experts in England as it appears to correlate with a decrease in people choosing to vaccinate their children against diseases

The PCV vaccine, which protects against 13 strains of Streptococcus pneumoniae, has caused the rate of emergency child hospital admissions from bacterial pneumonia to fall since its introduction in 2006. But The Guardian reports that PCV is “among the childhood vaccines for which take-up has fallen across England in recent years”.

Furthermore, the data reveal that the increase is partly driven by a sharp rise in bronchiolitis and other fungal or viral forms of pneumonia, which cannot be vaccinated against.

Average income also appears to dictate the prevalence of the disease, the Independent adds, claiming that the “10% most deprived areas of England had the most admissions, at 525 per 100,000 population”, compared with 381 admissions in the 10% least deprived areas.

Two of the highest rates in the country were Blackpool, with 640 admissions, and South Tees, which recorded 570.

Kevin Watkins, the Save the Children chief executive, said: “I would describe pneumonia as the ultimate disease of poverty, both in the UK and globally.”


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