World Pneumonia Day's Humble Beginnings

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson holds a globe as former US vice president Al Gore looks on at the kensington Roof Gardens in
Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson holds a globe as former US vice president Al Gore looks on at the kensington Roof Gardens in London, after he announced a new initiative in the fight against global warming.

What do you get when you combine a socially-conscious hedge fund manager, a group of technical experts and a big disease with readily-available solution in a New York City basement for a day? Well, in this case, World Pneumonia Day (WPD). As I think about the WPD events that took place in dozens of countries across the globe Nov. 12, I'm reminded of the humble beginnings from which this effort was launched and the example it sets for the power of champions with ideas.

In February 2009, Lance Laifer, a socially-minded hedge fund manager from New York who for years had been actively involved with raising awareness and funds for malaria work, attended a meeting convened by the international NGO Save the Children. At this meeting, Save's Dr. David Marsh remarked that pneumonia was the leading killer of children worldwide, taking a child's life every 20 seconds.

Lance was indignant. "How can this possibly be?" he asked. "I thought that it was malaria. How could I not know this?" When he learned that these deaths were unnecessary, that we have safe, effective treatments and vaccines, he was steadfast. From that epiphanal moment, Lance declared that he was going to announce the first ever World Pneumonia Day, and he was prepared to do it alone if needed.

Inspired by Lance (and fueled by emails that immediately went around the world), I joined a group of pneumonia leaders from civil society and technical institutions around the world like the WHO, UNICEF, CDC, the GAVI Alliance, Johns Hopkins, Save the Children, the Best Shot Foundation, and others a few weeks later in a window-less basement meeting room at a medical school in New York. We laid out an ambitious agenda for developing a communications strategy to raise awareness of pneumonia and its solutions. We resolved to focus on the WHO/UNICEF Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and the comprehensive package of interventions that it projects can reduce pneumonia deaths in children by two-thirds by 2015.

As it turns out, the pneumonia advocacy world was like tinder ready to burn that needed only a match to light it. Fueled by a dedicated core group of participants, the first world pneumonia day grew into the international coalition of over 140 partners that exists today. Sparked by small grants from the International Vaccine Access Center at JHU, the GAVI Alliance and others, events have taken place around the globe since 2009. These events take many forms and include marches on parliament in places as diverse (and unlikely) as Bangladesh, Nigeria, Sudan, and Myanmar, and soccer games in Kinshasa and hot air balloons in the Philippines.

This year, the 4th World Pneumonia Day marked my first as Director of Vaccine Delivery at the Gates Foundation, where pneumonia has a dedicated team that works across the foundation to develop and deliver a comprehensive set of tools including improved diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines for children and families in developing countries. I'm excited for the opportunity this affords me to continue playing a role in tackling pneumonia. It was also my first in Seattle, where World Pneumonia Day events included a video at the Gates Foundation's Visitor Center and, as part of the Paint the Town Blue initiative, the Pacific Science Center was bathed in blue light.

We need your voice. We need your action. Here are some simple things you can do to get involved and help us combat global childhood pneumonia. On this page you will find links to resources and activities. Spread the word -- together we can end childhood pneumonia!