Some people find posts like this tiresome. There are so many things that need doing and so little time and resources to do them. Adding to the list makes our eyes glaze over. I understand. But that doesn’t make this any less of a Big Deal.
Last week CDC was notified of another 22 pediatric deaths from swine flu. They didn’t all occur in the same week, but the total for this flu season is now 74. At this rate hitting 200 pediatric deaths — deaths insomeone under the age of 18 — seems likely. Most of the flu season is still ahead of us. These swine flu deaths are pneumonia deaths. Each is a terrible tragedy for some family. But 200 deaths, if they happen, is a drop in the bucket when it comes to children under the age of 5 who die of pneumonia. In the global account book the yearly toll is estimated to be 2 million. In fact pneumonia kills more children than anything else. Most people don’t know that, so today is a good day to mark that melancholy fact, since it is World Pneumonia Day. 40 organizations on 6 continents are noting it, we among them. Our particular aim is to drive home this brute fact: if the US sets a flu record of 200 pediatric deaths, it is still only one ten thousandth of world wide pneumonia deaths in children.
It’s a dreadful number, in two ways. It reminds us of the dread of parents whose little ones are so vulnerable. Life is fragile and no where is that fact more evident than with our children. But it’s dreadful in another way: many of those deaths are preventable. Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs and can be caused by lots of different organisms, but there are vaccines against some of the biggest killers. Half of the deaths are caused by Hemophilus influenzae and pneumococcus. There are effective vaccines for both. Supplementing the diet with zinc can reduce pneumonia risk in children still further, up to 25% (see Niessen LW, Hove ten AC, Hilderink HH, Weber M, Mulholland K, Ezzati M. Comparative impact assessment of child pneumonia interventions. Bull World Health Organ. 2009;87(6):472-478). Measles and influenza also cause their share of pneumonia and there are vaccines for them, too. We hardly have measles at all in the US, much less children dying of measles pneumonia. When I was young, there was lots of measles and I got it the old fashioned way — from some other kid (presumably). Now it’s almost extinct in the US. That’s because of vaccination.
The other day I was at the pharmacy (one of the few compounding pharmacies in our town), and a mother was trying to get Tamiflu for her daughter who was away at college. The pharmacist told her it was prescription only. She looked and sounded frantic. She was afraid for her child (who was hardly a child). Most of us who are parents understand what that feels like. It’s often not very rational, as in her case. It doesn’t matter. It’s hard wired into our brains. If it weren’t, we probably wouldn’t have survived as a species. It isn’t confined to white middle class moms and dads. Around the world, on average, parents will have their worst fears realized every 15 seconds. 5500 grieving parents a day. Every day. The culprit will be pneumonia.