Pneumonia - Africa's silent killer

Pneumonia - Africa's silent killer
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The last century has been witness to vast medical advancements that have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people around the world. Yet recent figures show that in 2015 alone, nearly a million children died of pneumonia. It is both astounding and saddening that despite the availability of simple provisions that can both prevent and cure the disease, marginalised children are being denied access to the right drugs to save their lives.

Today is World Pneumonia Day, presenting a great opportunity to raise awareness of this hidden killer and to issue a call to action to urge policymakers and international institutions alike to dedicate greater commitment to the cause. Straightforward interventions, such as increasing access to primary healthcare facilities can make a massive difference in the fight against pneumonia.

Pneumonia is used to refer to the infection of the lungs that can be caused by bacteria, viruses and rarely fungi. Most forms can be vaccinated against, and we now have various treatments for the different strands of the disease. In the developed world it generally afflicts the elderly. In the Global South, children are its most common victims.

A recent report by Save the Children identified that pneumonia kills 2 children under 5 every minute, accounting for 16% of all deaths of children under 5 globally - more than malaria, diarrhoea and measles combined. This worrying statistic forms part of the broader picture of inadequate healthcare facilities, a problem that is pervasive across the developing world. The issue is particularly prominent in Africa, and it is no coincidence that of the deaths that occur from pneumonia annually, the highest prevalence is among children on the African continent.

Sadly, the urgency surrounding the pneumonia crisis has been somewhat diluted over the years, overshadowed by other global epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and TB. As a result, pneumonia has fallen to the wayside of public health policy debate, creating a situation where resources are misallocated, and pneumonia left untreated, posing a death sentence to many suffering from pneumonia in the absence of adequate care.

The developing world urgently needs more, and better allocated resources, to avoid these unnecessary deaths from illnesses as curable and preventable as pneumonia. This will require revolutionising healthcare systems, many of which are stuck in cycles of underfunding and understaffing, at the expense of human life.

One solution is universal primary healthcare. Primary healthcare forms the cornerstone of healthcare systems in low-resource settings; often the only access that people in rural and remote communities have to healthcare, it is absolutely critical that high-quality universal primary healthcare is accessible, and that clinics are stocked with the necessary drugs and equipment to save lives.

Sadly this is not the case in my native Nigeria. The nation’s universal primary healthcare deficit thwarts progress and development across development indices, and in the absence of solid government commitment, threatens to dampen the health and development of the nation in generations to come.

The provision of decent primary healthcare, with an adequate supply of the necessary drugs to treat common yet deadly illnesses such as pneumonia, must be prioritised at local, national and international levels. Solid and effective systems of universal primary healthcare would not just positively impact pneumonia, but would have widespread implications for the spread of other infectious and non-communicable diseases across the continent. Pneumonia is a symptom of the wider healthcare deficit that sees the unnecessary deaths of millions of people each year. Through the implementation of universal primary healthcare, we have the power to ensure that no more children die unnecessarily at the hands of preventable and treatable diseases like pneumonia. We must act now; greater investment in primary healthcare and a national commitment to addressing and eliminating infectious disease in my country is the obvious first step.

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