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New Effort Targets the Leading Killers of Children

An eight-month-old boy with pneumonia is examined by a doctor at Amana Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

An eight-month-old boy with pneumonia is examined by a doctor at Amana Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Credit: Kristin Palitza/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, May 22 2013 (IPS) - PATH, a Seattle-based global health development organisation, is aiming to save two million lives by 2015 by jointly tackling diarrhea and pneumonia, the leading killers of children globally.

Steve Davis, president and CEO of PATH, delivered the message at the ninth annual PATH Breakfast for Global Health held in Seattle on Tuesday.

“Today we placed a bold stake in the ground, with partners around the world, to save two million lives by the end of 2015,” Davis told IPS.

PATH will begin its efforts in India, Cambodia and Ethiopia, where intervention is most urgently needed and PATH has resources. While all three countries have seen their child mortality rates from diarrhea drop, India’s pneumonia death rate remains stagnant, accounting for 24 percent of deaths of children under five, the same as in 2000, according to 2013 World Health Organisation statistics.

“No parent should have to bury a child because of something we can help prevent or treat,” Davis said.

Diarrhea and pneumonia are two diseases that overwhelmingly affect children in African and Asian countries, Davis said, with diarrhea claiming around 760,000 lives a year. And while the number of children dying in Africa before the age of five has decreased, it still vastly outnumbers all other parts of the world, according to the 2013 WHO statistics.

Melinda Gates, philanthropist and founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which helps fund health development and vaccines world wide, spoke at the breakfast of the importance of vaccinating children as well as “appropriate” science that meets the needs of communities in the developing countries.

“[The] developing world is littered with pilot programmes,” Gates said.

As he took to the stage, Davis pointed to a tool belt around his suit jacket. A visual aid, the belt allowed Davis to show and carry some of the tools that can prevent the deaths of so many children from diarrheal disease, tools that will be used to achieve PATH’s life-saving goal.

Clean water, soap, zinc tablets for oral rehydration therapy and the rotavirus vaccine, which stops some diarrheal diseases before they start, were all included.

But it’s not just science and vaccines that can improve the lives of communities ravaged by diarrhea. Deeply held cultural traditions and ideas about the disease have to be altered as well.

Dr. Alfred Ochola, PATH’s Technical Advisor for Child Survival and Development in Kenya, spoke about educating Kenyans on how to reduce the risk of diarrhea in their communities through hygiene practices like hand washing.

But Ochola, who lost a brother and sister to a diarrhea outbreak in Kenya as a child, has found that at first, people are reluctant to embrace change.

“A big [challenge] is combatting old beliefs that diarrhea is a curse and not an infection, and that the death of a child is an inevitable part of life. ‘God will give you another one’ is a common saying in Kenya,” Ochola said.

Many people believe a child who has diarrhea is cursed, Ochola said. Vomiting and diarrhea are welcomed because it rids the body of the evil inside it, while it should be taken as a sign that something is seriously wrong.

Poverty is another challenge in combatting the diseases. Although heart disease and diabetes are becoming the new illnesses of poverty, according to Davis, diarrhea and pneumonia still adversely affect children of developing countries in Africa and Asia.

In Africa and Southeast Asia, the percentage of child deaths are higher than the global average and have not significantly decreased in 10 years. Both regions have seen child mortality from diarrhea fall from 13 percent to 11 percent of deaths from 2000 to 2010, but in Africa, the rate of death from pneumonia has actually increased, from 16 percent to 17 percent.

“Too many people lack the financial means to seek care when it’s most needed, like paying for transportation to get to a health facility far from home… We often reach women and their children too late,” Ochola said.

Ochola told the story of Jane Wamalwa, a Kenyan woman who came to understand the reasons behind making a change in long-held practices in treating and preventing diarrhea. Wamalwa lost three children to the disease, and has now become a trusted source of information on good anti-diarrhea practice in her community, Ochola said.

“It has become her calling,” he added.

 
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