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Tackling diseases for poorest children 'can yield huge gains'

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media
Tackling diseases for poorest children 'can yield huge gains'

A new report from UNICEF focuses on the huge potential to narrow the child survival gap between the richest and the poorest by focusing on pneumonia and diarrhoea - the two primary killers of children under the age of five.

The new UNICEF report, Pneumonia and diarrhoea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world's poorest children, identifies a tremendous opportunity to narrow the child survival gap both among and within countries by increasing commitment, attention and funding.

"We know what works against pneumonia and diarrhoea - the two illnesses that hit the poorest hardest," said Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director. "Scaling up simple interventions could overcome two of the biggest obstacles to increasing child survival, help give every child a fair chance to grow and thrive."

Pneumonia and diarrhoea account for nearly one-third of the deaths among children under five globally - or more than 2 million lives each year. Nearly 90 per cent of deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

The prevention and treatments for both diseases often overlap, and include such basic steps as: increasing vaccine coverage; encouraging breastfeeding and hand-washing with soap; expanding access to safe drinking water and sanitation; and disseminating oral rehydration salts to children with diarrhoea and antibiotics to children with bacterial pneumonia.

The UNICEF report is being issued shortly before the launch of a major global initiative on child survival in Washington, D.C. on 14-15 June convened by the Governments of the Ethiopia, India and the United States with 700 leaders and global experts from government, the private sector and civil society.

The potential for saving children's lives is huge if proven, cost-effective interventions for pneumonia and diarrhoea can be scaled up to reach the most disadvantaged children.

The report says that more than 2 million children's lives could be saved in the 75 countries with the highest mortality burden if each country's entire population of children under five years of age received the coverage already achieved by the wealthiest 20 per cent in those countries.

The report presents an array of data showing progress and challenges over the past several decades.

Appropriate care for children with pneumonia symptoms is haphazard, with less than one-third of affected children receiving antibiotics. Oral rehydration salts, a traditional, low-cost response for children with diarrhoea, are used by only one-third of sick children in developing countries - signalling a failure to deliver one of the tried and true child survival interventions.

One of the simplest, most effective ways to safeguard babies from disease is exclusive breastfeeding. Yet fewer than 40 per cent of infants younger than six months of age in developing countries are exclusively breastfed, depriving them of this critical protection.

Across developing countries, the poor are less likely than the wealthy to receive these life-saving interventions.

New vaccines against the major causes of pneumonia and diarrhoea are already available. The report found that most low-income countries have introduced the Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine. While pneumococcal conjugate vaccines are also increasingly available, low-income countries urgently need to introduce them into routine immunization programmes.

Innovations also help to make a difference. Child-friendly zinc and amoxicillin tablets and flavoured oral rehydration salts in packets are more palatable to children, and new uses for mobile technology and SMS texting are enabling health workers to reach farther into remote communities and other areas where children are at greatest risk.

"Innovation has helped save millions of lives; it can and will save many more," said Mr. Lake.

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