UNICEF AND WHO launch a global action plan to tackle child mortality due to pneumonia and diarrhoea

Aimed at saving young lives from preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea, the UNICEF and the WHO recently launched a new Global Action Plan that has the potential to save up to two million children globally every year from deaths caused by these two diseases.

India accounts for the largest number of under five deaths — nearly 1.5 million, of which close to 0.8 million die within 28 days of birth. Nearly 4 lakh children below five years die due to pneumonia and more than two lakh die due to diarrhoea in India annually, together accounting for 37 per cent of all deaths of children below five years.

The Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea calls for closer integration of efforts to prevent and treat these two diseases and sets ambitious targets to reduce mortality rates and raise levels of children’s access to life-saving interventions.

“Too often, strategies to tackle pneumonia and diarrhoea run in parallel,” says Dr. Elizabeth Mason, director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health at WHO. “But as countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Malawi, Pakistan and Tanzania are already showing, it makes good health sense and good economic sense to integrate those strategies more closely.”

A number of elements hold the key to reducing infections and deaths from both the diseases. For example, good nutrition and a clean environment help protect children. New vaccines are being introduced to protect children from these diseases. Good access to health services and the right medicines can ensure they get the treatment they need. But many existing efforts to address pneumonia and diarrhoea in low and middle-income countries have yet to capitalise on these common elements.

“This is a question of equity. Poor children in low-income countries are most at risk of death from pneumonia or diarrhoea but much less likely to get the interventions they need,” said Dr. Mickey Chopra, global head of UNICEF’s health programmes.

The new WHO/UNICEF Action Plan has set clear goals for the world to achieve by 2025: a 75 per cent reduction in incidence of severe pneumonia and diarrhoea from 2010 levels among children under five, and the virtual elimination of deaths from both diseases in the same age-group. It also aims for a 40 per cent reduction in the global number of children under five who are stunted.

The Action Plan’s targets are significantly higher than current levels. For example, it calls for 90 per cent of all children to have access to antibiotics for pneumonia and oral rehydration salts for diarrhoea, up from current levels of 31 and 35 per cent respectively. As an interim target, at least half of all children under six months should be exclusively breastfed, against 2012 levels of 39 per cent. All children should have access to improved sanitation and safe drinking water, from 63 and 89 per cent respectively; and building on the good progress already made in some countries in introducing new vaccines against pneumococcal bacteria and rotavirus, it aims for 90 per cent coverage by the target date.

The Action Plan calls on governments and other stakeholders to prioritise investment in the population groups with the poorest access to services to prevent and treat pneumonia and diarrhoea. Nearly 90 per cent of pneumonia and diarrhoea deaths in children currently occur in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.