Pneumonia, diarrhea chief killers of children under 5 in Vietnam: UNICEF

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A worker rides past a garbage dump on Highway 5 near Hanoi May 15. According to UNICEF, pneumonia and diarrhea account for nearly one third of deaths among children under five in Vietnam, and poor sanitation is a leading cause of the two diseases. Photo: Reuters

Pneumonia and diarrhea remain major killers of children under the age of five in the East Asia-Pacific region, including Vietnam, according to a new UNICEF report.

Titled "Pneumonia and diarrhea: Tackling the deadliest diseases for the world's poorest children," the report says the two diseases accounted for nearly one third of deaths among children under five, most of them among the poorest children in the region, although the total number of deaths decreased from 2.2 million in 1990 to around 700,000 in 2010.

In Vietnam, the mortality rate among children under five decreased dramatically from 51 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 23 in 2010, the report says.

Pneumonia and diarrhea respectively account for 12 percent and 10 percent of the under-five deaths in the country, the report says.

In the last two weeks, seven percent of children under five in Vietnam had diarrhea while three percent of children from 0-59 months were reported to have symptoms of pneumonia.

According to UNICEF, most of the countries in East Asia and the Pacific region have developed sophisticated healthcare systems, but the poor in rural or remote areas are less likely to receive simple life-saving interventions for pneumonia and diarrhea because they do not have easy access to healthcare facilities.

"Where a child lives definitely impacts their access to health care, but there are still easy and affordable solutions for treating pneumonia and diarrhea which could save lives, but require government commitment and action," said Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF Vietnam representative.

"Most countries in the region do not allow community health workers in remote areas to provide critical antibiotics to children with suspected pneumonia, and Vietnam is one of them.

"In fact, only seven countries in East Asia and the Pacific have a national policy supporting community treatment of pneumonia with antibiotics despite the strong evidence that it saves lives."

Countries like Thailand, Mongolia and Malaysia, which support the use of antibiotics, are examples where access to this simple intervention has reduced the risk of dying from pneumonia among children living in rural or hard-to-reach communities, according to UNICEF.

Another simple and effective way to safeguard babies from disease is exclusive breastfeeding. However, less than one in five infants younger than six months are exclusively breastfed in Vietnam, depriving them of this critical protection, the report says.

Lack of access to decent sanitation also continues to put millions of children at risk of contracting diarrhea, the report says.

In Vietnam, an estimated 6.5 percent of the population resort to open defecation and close to half of the population in rural areas do not use sanitation facilities hygienic enough to prevent excreta-related diseases like diarrhea.

In addition, only 70 percent of the poorest households in Vietnam have a hand-washing place where water and soap is available in their homes, while close to 98 percent of the richest households such spaces.

According to the latest statistics, in Vietnam, the rate of mothers regularly washing hands with soap after defecation accounts for just 36 percent, followed by washing hands with soap before eating (23 percent), before and after preparing food for children (19 percent), and after helping children defecate and cleaning children's bottom (15 percent).

"Child deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea can be significantly reduced by tackling these problems and focusing efforts on the poorest communities," said Sylwander.

"Through this, the tremendous progress made in reducing the number of child deaths each year in Vietnam can be accelerated, saving even more lives."

Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, said, "We know what works against pneumonia and diarrhea the two illnesses that hit the poorest hardest."

"Scaling up simple interventions could overcome two of the biggest obstacles to increasing child survival and help give every child a fair chance to grow and thrive."

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