Pneumonia in children under five
In a recent eye-opening statistic that grabbed prime real estate in one of the world’s leading publications, doctors spoke about how mortality rates in children under the age of five due to preventable causes had fallen significantly in the past two decades.
While that may seem like a very promising headline, the fact is that 6.9 million children under the age of five still die every year from conditions that can be prevented. At the forefront of these conditions is pneumonia which alone accounts for almost 1.9 million deaths.
The highest prevalence of the condition is in remote parts of the world among low income groups who struggle to get aid and medication on time.
Pneumonia in children under five is in fact, the leading cause of death in that age group. It is estimated that almost 100 children died every hour due to pneumonia in 2015.
That’s despite communities, countries, governments and nonprofit organizations coming together to work as a cohesive unit to prevent, nurture and eradicate the condition.
The question to be asked is, ‘What more needs to be done’
Understanding your foe
To fully understand why pneumonia in children under five is potentially fatal, we must probe into what causes the condition and how the challenges can be addressed.
Pneumonia is a pulmonary infection that causes the alveoli (sacs in the lungs) to be filled with pus and fluid discharge which makes it nearly impossible to breathe. Breathing becomes labored and painful thereby reducing the oxygen levels in the child’s body.
The causes of pneumonia are many including bacteria, viruses and even fungi. Some of the common culprits are:
Bacterial Pneumonia: Streptococcus pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae type
Viral Pneumonia: Respiratory syncytial virus
Fungal Infections: Other than this, in children who have a compromised immune system due to conditions like HIV, a fungi called ‘Pneumocystis jiroveci’ is the leading cause of pneumonia linked deaths.
The common symptoms
One of the challenges that physicians often face is to precisely pinpoint the cause of the condition between viral and bacterial pneumonia. Viral pneumonia manifests many more symptoms than a bacterial infection.
Cough and labored breathing in children under five is usually considered as a red flag to further inspect for symptoms of pneumonia. It may or may not be accompanied with fever. One of the commonest symptom is an indrawing of the chest during inhalation.
Viral pneumonia may also be accompanied by severe wheezing.
In extreme cases, children may be unable to eat or drink and may also experience convulsions.
In a healthy child, the body’s natural defense mechanism will kick-in and fight off the infection by itself without excessive medical intervention. But in children who are malnourished or who are not breast fed adequately, the condition may develop more rapidly.
Conditions like HIV or measles can also compound the risk of the condition developing as does passive smoking, indoor pollution and living in an overly crowded environment, all of which are typical in low income countries where the incidence of pneumonia is highest.
If diagnosed at the right stage, pneumonia can be treated with amoxicillin dispersable tablets supported with the right nutrition in children. Oral antibiotic tablets are equally effective.
One of the most effective ways to reduce the incidence of pneumonia in children under five is vaccination against pneumococcus, measles, whooping cough and Hib.