In the Haripur district of northern Pakistan, Lady Health Worker Naseem bibi counts 1-year-old Usama’s breaths before successfully treating him for pneumonia. As you can see here, Usama is one of the lucky ones. Pneumonia is the leading cause of child mortality worldwide — killing more than 1.4 million children each year. The bitter irony of course, is that pneumonia is both preventable and treatable, but in the developing world, where the local health clinic may be hours away, and access to even the most basic medications can be hard to come by, children are dying needlessly.
A new study in the medical journal The Lancet, however, shows that children treated with simple antibiotics in their own homes by frontline community health workers — such as Pakistan’s Lady Health Workers — are more likely to recover from severe pneumonia than those referred to health facilities.
“Pneumonia is highly treatable with inexpensive antibiotics, yet it remains the world’s number-one killer of children,” said Carolyn Miles, President & CEO of Save the Children, whose organzation conducted the study. “Today’s results point to an extremely promising and practical way to reduce child deaths from severe pneumonia in the hardest hit communities. Training and supporting more frontline health workers is at the heart of the solution.”
The study, coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO) and released on the eve of World Pneumonia Day, followed 3,211 children with severe pneumonia in the Haripur district and compared the outcomes of treating children with severe pneumonia at home versus traditional healthcare facilities. It found treatment failures were cut in half when patients were treated in their homes.
“Our study aimed to show that children can recover just as well from severe pneumonia when treated at home as when referred to a health facility. In fact, we found that frontline health workers treating children at home can be even more effective,” said the study’s principal investigator, Dr. Salim Sadruddin.
To date, WHO guidelines do not allow for treatment at home when pneumonia is defined as severe. Healthcare workers are instructed to administer the first dose of an antibiotic and then refer the family to a healthcare facility.
Dr. Elizabeth Mason, Director of WHO’s Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health, said: “The results of the Pakistan trial are very promising, and we will be looking closely at future studies. If we see similar results in other places, we can update the global guidance to make treatment much more accessible for families, help governments make the most of limited resources, and save more children’s lives.”
Pneumonia kills more children each year than AIDS, malaria and measles combined. World Pneumonia Day, marked each year on November 12th, was established by the Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia “to encourage efforts among donors, policy makers, healthcare professionals and the general public to combat the disease.”
For some more facts about pneumonia, and what you can do, take a look at this World Pneumonia Day video:
Photo credit: Save the Children