Being a doctor doesn’t necessarily make being a mom to a sick baby any easier. Like every mother, I’ve spent my share of sleepless nights tending to my kids sick with a cold, or diarrhea, or an earache, but those episodes are just a distant blur for me. Not so the time my son had pneumonia.
It was his first Christmas and we were both really sick with a respiratory illness that I’m sure was the flu. I kept telling myself we would both feel better soon. But we didn’t. In fact, Jack got worse. By evening and into the night, with more rapid breathing and some tugging of his chest with each breath, there was no question we needed to get him medical care. These were signs that something was very wrong.
An x-ray confirmed that Jack had pneumonia. My heart sank. I was supposed to have gotten him vaccinated against the flu weeks earlier, but I put it off. As a pediatrician and vaccinologist, I knew that vaccine could have protected him from pneumonia. As a parent, I should have never have been “too busy” to get him vaccinated. Thankfully with proper treatment, Jack quickly recovered. I knew we were lucky but also knew there were hundreds of thousands of children each year who are not.
In my work, I often see this same set of events play out very differently. In the developing world, a pneumonia infection can mean a death sentence for a child under five. Medical treatment sometimes requires considerable travel, often by foot, and the medicines needed to treat pneumonia are not always available. The cost of medical treatment is often too great for millions of families who live from day to day on their earnings or on what they can grow.
For many years, the vaccines needed to prevent pneumonia were not accessible to the children who needed them most. Thanks to the work of organizations like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GAVI Alliance, UNICEF and WHO along with the partnership of countless others including the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins, the situation has changed dramatically. Vaccines to prevent two of the most deadly forms of pneumonia are now available and being rapidly deployed around the world. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine has already been introduced in 21 developing countries. GAVI’s goal is to reach 90 million children in 50 countries by 2015. Hib vaccines are now available in nearly every GAVI country, and more than 500,000 future deaths caused by Hib have been averted through GAVI Alliance support as of the end of 2011.
Despite this progress, pneumonia remains the number one killer of children under age five globally. Vaccines are the most effective tools to prevent pneumonia. Yet, in some countries we still can’t reach all of their children, particularly those in remote areas. That’s why we must also emphasize the importance of protection from and treatment of pneumonia.
Parents and policymakers alike need to know that breastfeeding is an important line of defense – providing the baby’s ‘first vaccine’ – and should promote exclusive breastfeeding the first six months of a child’s life. Simply knowing the symptoms of pneumonia – the telltale shortness of breath that led me to the ER so many years ago – and seeking treatment early can mean the difference between life and death. Washing hands frequently to limit the spread of infection and using only clean cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution can also make a tremendous difference.
November 12 marks the 4th annual World Pneumonia Day. As mothers, we must continue to call on our leaders to prioritize efforts and investments to reduce the number of preventable child deaths worldwide. One child’s death from a preventable disease is one too many.
Now I lead the International Vaccines Access Center (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Our work is focused on accelerating access to life-saving vaccines for children in every corner of the world through the generation of evidence and translation of that evidence into policy.
Each day, as I sit down to work, I think of that night when I was not a pediatrician, not a vaccine expert, but just a mom with a really sick baby who needed help. Jack is now 13 years old and yet that night seems like yesterday. Millions of moms aren’t as lucky as I was, and I think of them all the time. On this day, do whatever you can to help make pneumonia just a memory – protect, prevent and treat.
The Take Action Challenge: For three actions you can take right now to help fight pneumonia go here.
Kate O’Brien MD, MPH is Professor of International Health and the Acting Director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. A pediatric infectious disease physician, epidemiologist and vaccinologist, she also serves as Associate Director of the Center for American Indian Health.
Photo Credit: IVAC / used with permission