Ridding Nigeria Of Pneumonia And Diarrhoea

children of North EastTHERE is nothing more important for a country’s future than the health of its children. High mortality rates are an immense personal tragedy for families. But poor health has an even farther reach. It robs a society and economy of the energy and potential it needs to drive progress.

As Nigeria and the rest of the world consider how to build on the progress of the Millennium Development Goals, improving children’s health must be right at the top of the agenda. For while it is good news that the global under-five mortality rate has been halved in a generation, it remains shocking that hundreds of thousands of children are dying each year from every day, preventable, curable diseases.

None have a more terrible impact than pneumonia and severe diarrhoea which together kill 1.5 million young children globally every year. It means that every minute of every day, six children die of these two diseases. Yet they remain largely forgotten diseases. We need to put this right.

Pneumonia, for example, claims the lives of almost 1 million worldwide – more than HIV, TB and malaria combined. People of any age, in any country, are at risk of contracting pneumonia but 99% of all childhood deaths from pneumonia occur in poor countries.

Severe diarrhoea is the second-leading fatal infectious disease with a death toll of more than half a million – largely in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia where access to safe water, immunisation, sanitation and urgent medical care can be limited.

Nigeria knows all about this tragedy. Despite all the improvements in health care in recent years, only India has a higher global burden of child mortality from diarrhoea and pneumonia. It is, of course, the most vulnerable children in the poorest communities that are most likely to suffer.

The challenge now for the new government is to build on recent progress. Nigeria’s leadership in the introduction in 2012 of a new vaccine to protect young children from five diseases at once, was a huge milestone. Last year saw the launch of a new vaccine to protect against pneumonia, a huge step in ensuring healthy futures for Nigerian children.

By accelerating and expanding the pneumonia vaccines programmes and ensuring they reach all children who need them, the new government would have a big impact on child mortality. So, too, would the introduction of the vaccine against rotavirus, the most common form of severe diarrhoea.

It is not just vaccines that will help reduce this terrible and unnecessary death toll. They must be coupled with better healthcare for children and improved access to oral rehydration solutions, zinc, antibiotics and improved sanitation.

Ensuring all clinics are stocked with affordable treatments to counter pneumonia would be another major step. Medical staff need the right training to care properly for children.
But health services can only be provided if children are taken to receive care. At the moment, only one in three children under five with suspected pneumonia, for example, is taken to an appropriate medical provider. The message to care-givers of young children needs to be “take sick children to a medical facility”.

This week, both World Pneumonia Day and World Toilet Day provide opportunities to focus on what needs to be done to tackle these diseases. Putting this right will require political will, additional resources and integrated policies. National efforts, involving government, civil society organisations, and communities, will also be needed to combat pneumonia and diarrhoea.

All these measures will require new investment in child health, which is difficult at a time when there are many pressures on government resources. But we know the benefits will far outweigh any costs. By taking affordable and effective steps needed to tackle pneumonia and severe diarrhoea now, Nigeria will not only lift death sentences from thousands of its children but also build a healthier society and more prosperous economy.

• Ayo Ajayi is the Africa Director, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This article is to mark World Pneumonia Day and Child Health Week.

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