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Vaccines key in reducing childhood pneumonia fatalities

With as many as 30 different causes1, including viruses, bacteria, or fungi2, pneumonia is the single biggest infectious killer of adults and children around the world, with as many as 2.5 million people succumbing to the infection in 2019, and 672 000 of these being children3.

Moreover, the impact of pneumonia is further exacerbated by the devastation caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, where the disease could potentially increase ‘all-cause’ pneumonia deaths by more than 75%3.

Dr Thulani Mhlanga, Senior Medical Manager for Vaccines at Pfizer South Africa, explains that, for this reason, it is imperative to continue driving awareness around the dangers associated with pneumonia. “Annual forums such as World Pneumonia Day, which will be observed on 12 November this year, are important in creating platforms for the global public to demand action against this preventable and treatable disease4.”

As pneumonia affects one or both of the lungs1, it’s important to understand how the lungs function so as to comprehend the impact that pneumonia has on breathing. The lungs are made up of sacs called alveoli which hold air when breathing. When a person is infected with pneumonia, these sacs fill with pus and fluid2. This in turn leads to inflammation1 and limits oxygen intake, making it difficult and painful to breath2.

The disease affects everyone, irrespective of race, age, or gender, and results in more than a million hospitalisations annually1. It is common in children under the age of five5, and while it is serious and can be deadly, there are preventative measures to reduce the chances of getting pneumonia1.

Dr Thulani Mhlanga emphasises that greater attention needs to be placed on preventing pneumococcal pneumonia – an infection caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae6 and one of the most common bacterial infections prevalent in children7.

“While pneumonia caused by viruses – often referred to as viral pneumonia – tend to be milder, and the onset of symptoms take longer to develop, bacterial pneumonia such as pneumococcal pneumonia has a faster onset, where children become ill quicker and symptoms include a high fever, cough, and often accelerated breathing8,” says Dr Thulani Mhlanga.

Children that have developed viral pneumonia are increasingly susceptible to bacterial pneumonia5. Infections caused by Streptococcus pneumonia bacteria continue to be the most common cause of vaccine-preventable mortalities in children9, and it is worrying that this type of bacteria is often capable of fending off antibiotics10.

Apart from practising good hygiene habits, pneumococcal pneumonia in children can be prevented through the use of vaccines. “Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines are routinely administered to children11 and are effective in reducing the severity of the disease12,” adds Dr Thulani Mhlanga.

Vaccines can drastically reduce childhood pneumonia fatalities in South Africa, lowering mortality rates by an estimated 23% and 33% in children under the age of 19, and preventing around 18 000 deaths between 2009 and 201614.

It is important to note that pneumococcal conjugate vaccines do not protect against COVID-1915. However, the World Health Organization does recommend that the vaccines be considered in high-risk cases to protect against secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia and pneumococcal disease, where the individual may be admitted to hospital16.

The World Health Organization and UNICEF however have noted a drastic decline in vaccinations during the peak of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and warn that to protect the lives of children, vaccination programmes must resume17. In fact, the Department of Health notes that childhood immunisation coverage in South Africa declined from 82% in April 2019 to only 61% a year later18.

“We cannot simply substitute one health crisis for another17, and parents should understand the importance of childhood immunisation in protecting children from potentially deadly diseases and reducing the spread of diseases from child to child19.

“It is never too late to catch up on vaccinations20, and while the number of doses required to do this varies based on the age of the child, a medical professional can advise and implement an appropriate catch-up plan21,” concludes Dr Thulani Mhlanga.

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