In Vietnam, 11 children aged under five die of the disease every day though it can be easily prevented and treated
A child being examined at a hospital in Ho Chi Minh City. International child health agencies have called on developing countries, including Vietnam, to take action to reduce child deaths from pneumonia.
Leading international child-health agencies are urging Vietnam to step up prevention and treatment of pediatric pneumonia, which kills around 4,000 children in the country every year.
"In Vietnam, every day 11 children under five die of pneumonia," Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF's Vietnam representative, said in a statement on World Pneumonia Day (November 12).
"The greatest burden in the fight against pneumonia is falling on the poorest, who already are coping with too much.
"A child from a poor family is many times more likely to die of pneumonia than one in the richest 20 percent of the population."
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that fills them with fluid, causing cough and fever and making breathing difficult. Severe pneumonia can be deadly.
Dr. Tran Anh Tuan of the Children's Hospital 1 in Ho Chi Minh City said pneumonia causes 12 percent of fatalities among children under five in Vietnam.
"Many children under five contract acute respiratory infection between five and eight times a year, and a quarter of them turn into pneumonia," he said, adding that many parents are not fully aware of the dangers.
Dr. Nguyen Tien Dung, head of the children's ward at the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, said pneumonia does not have clear symptoms, and many parents only take their children to hospital when the illness becomes serious.
"An increasing respiratory rate is the most common symptom of the disease," he told news website VnExpress, adding that other symptoms may include fever, breathing difficulties, and loss of appetite.
Sylwander said there are many ways to prevent pneumonia, including vaccination, providing a healthy environment, zinc supplementation, adequate nutrition, washing hands with soap, and reduction of indoor air pollution.
Exclusive breastfeeding until six months can reduce the incidence of acute respiratory infection and pneumonia by up to 15 times, she said.
"Unfortunately only 17 percent of mothers exclusively breastfeed in Vietnam, the lowest rate in Southeast Asia."
Pneumonia can be treated with antibiotics if symptoms are recognized early, but Sylwander said in Vietnam only 5 percent of mothers and caregivers are aware of the danger signs of pneumonia and only 68 percent of children with symptoms of pneumonia are treated with antibiotics.
"Also, in hard-to-reach villages very few people have the knowledge and skills to see the symptoms and manage cases of pneumonia, which could help save thousands of vulnerable children's lives in remote mountainous areas where children are the most prone to pneumonia."
She called for measures to ensure that communities are aware of danger signs to avoid unnecessary deaths.
Number one killer
On World Pneumonia Day, the Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia (GCACP) has called for greater efforts in the fight against childhood pneumonia around the world as the infection remains the number one killer of children under five.
It claimed 1.3 million lives in 2011 alone, more than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined, and was responsible for nearly one in five global child deaths.
"Pneumonia can be prevented and cured. Yet for too long it has been the leading cause of global deaths among children," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who spearheads Every Woman Every Child, a movement that aims to save 16 million lives by 2015, said.
"We must scale-up proven solutions and ensure they reach every child in need."
According to GCACP, access to healthcare facilities and treatment remains out of reach for many children in the developing world, where 99 percent of deaths from pneumonia occur.
It said country leaders and funders must prioritize efforts and investments in proven interventions, including access to vaccines, proper antibiotic treatment, and improved sanitation, as well as for the promotion of practices such as exclusive breastfeeding, frequent hand washing, care seeking, and the use of clean cook-stoves to reduce indoor air pollution.
On November 12 several international child health agencies announced plans to work together to improve access to amoxicillin in dispersible tablet form, the recommended antibiotic treatment for pneumonia in children under five.
"Despite the existence of low-cost and highly effective antibiotics, less than one third of children with suspected pneumonia use antibiotics and a tiny minority receive amoxicillin in the ideal form for small children a tablet that dissolves in liquid," according to a joint-statement released by the agencies that include the World Health Organization, UNICEF, USAID, and others.
Vaccination coverage for pneumonia is at about 85 percent but the poorest often miss out, according to UNICEF, which adds that unsanitary, overcrowded living conditions and lack of knowledge of how to protect themselves increase their vulnerability.
According to a recent report by the United Nations Commission on Lifesaving Commodities for Women and Children, providing access to dissolvable amoxicillin to the children most at risk would potentially save 1.56 million children over five years.
"Governments have to take the threat of pneumonia seriously and provide adequate vaccines, diagnostic services, treatment and healthcare, especially among the poorest, or this scourge will continue to rob the world of its children at the rate of almost 3,400 per day," UNICEF's chief of health Mickey Chopra said in a statement.
"This is unacceptable!"