U.N. says $39 billion would stem child pneumonia deaths

LONDON (Reuters) - Pneumonia kills more young children than any other disease, but an investment of $39 billion, or just $12.9 per child, could save 5.3 million lives in developing countries by 2015, the U.N. said Monday.

A woman helps her son with oxygen treatment at the Catarino Rivas Hospital in San Pedro Sula, March 5, 2008. Honduras registered some 9,000 cases of different types of pneumonia in 2008. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

The disease, which attacks the lungs, kills 1.8 million children under the age of five every year, but despite this toll, relatively few resources are put into tackling it, the World Health Organization and U.N. Children’s Fund said.

They made a joint appeal to fund a six-year plan for pneumonia prevention and treatment in 68 developing countries, mostly in Africa and Asia, plus parts of Central and South America, where it is prevalent.

“We know the strategy will work, and if it is applied in every high-burden country, we will be able to prevent millions of deaths,” Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, said.

The agencies called for strategies to urge mothers to breast feed babies exclusively for the first six months, increase use of vaccines, and boost proper treatment. They also want policymakers to act immediately to implement the plan.

Their proposed Global Action Plan calls for:

* Protecting children by assuring breastfeeding for six months, providing adequate nutrition, reducing low birth weight and indoor air pollution and improving hygiene.

* Preventing children contracting pneumonia with vaccinations against major triggers, including measles, Hib, pneumococcus and rotavirus, by preventing and treating HIV in children, and by providing zinc for children with diarrhea.

* Treating children who get pneumonia with antibiotics and proper care in local communities, health centers and hospitals.

It sets targets for 2015 to expand coverage of the relevant vaccines and exclusive breastfeeding rates to 90 percent and increasing access to proper treatment to 90 percent.

Reaching these goals would cut child pneumonia deaths by 65 percent and cut the number of severe pneumonia cases in children by 25 percent compared to 2000 levels, it said.

Children in rich nations are routinely immunized against diseases that cause pneumonia, but in much of the developing world vaccine coverage is patchy.

Prevnar a vaccine made by Wyeth, now owned by U.S. drug giant Pfizer, protects against seven strains of S. pneumonia and is part of routine vaccinations in rich countries.

Rwanda became one of the first developing countries to launch a national pneuomcoccal immunization campaign in April.

Several drug firms including Merck and GlaxoSmithKline make Hib vaccines, which the non-profit Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI) provides to 35 African nations.

Editing by Michael Roddy