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COMMENTARY: Support children on World Pneumonia Day

We need to expand the availability of the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine to protect children from contracting pneumonia.  – Photo by Waddie96 / Wikimedia

Every 43 seconds, a child dies of pneumonia, which is unacceptable, as these deaths are preventable. I am writing to raise awareness about a concerning issue for our community, our country and our world as we recognized World Pneumonia Day on Sunday.

Despite having an effective vaccine and other tools available, pneumonia remains a leading cause of death among children younger than 5 years old around the world. As of 2022, only 60 percent of children are fully vaccinated against pneumonia. Access remains a large issue, especially as pandemic-related disruptions deeply affected these vaccination systems.

As a bit of background on this disease that has followed humans for hundreds of years, pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that can cause coughing, difficulty breathing, fever and chills. Many infectious agents can cause it, often the pneumococcus bacteria.

While pneumonia among children is largely survivable in the U.S., there are many factors that increase the risk of death from this disease around the world. This includes the lack of access to clean drinking water and, most notably, air pollution. Once experiencing symptoms of pneumonia, way too many children lack access to adequate health services, especially those in rural areas. This increases the risk of severe complications and death that could be prevented by quality medical care.

While many interventions can protect children from these unnecessary deaths, immunization through the pneumococcal conjugate vaccines is especially crucial, so we must continue to expand access to reach the 40 percent of children lacking this necessary protection. Most children without access to Pneumococcal vaccine live in low and middle-income countries, and increased efforts by many stakeholders, such as the United Nations Child Fund and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, can help reach them.

As a Public Health Representative for the Vaccines for Children program, I have been actively promoting and implementing vaccination initiatives aimed at protecting vulnerable populations, including children, from vaccine-preventable diseases. I am currently pursuing my Doctor of Public Health degree at Rutgers School of Public Health in parallel with my professional work.

As a doctoral student, I have been immersed in rigorous coursework, research and practical experiences that have deepened my understanding of the impact of vaccine-preventable diseases and why the U.S. government must continue investing in immunization programs.

We must urgently reach children with pneumonia vaccines, among other routine childhood immunizations. To do so, we must continue funding crucial vaccination programs and global health agencies, including the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's global health programs and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in each year’s federal budget.

I implore our readers to use their voices and take action now: Urge Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) of New Brunswick to robustly fund these programs in the federal budget for next year. House and Senate leaders must work together to make this happen.

Together, we can make a difference and reach every child, no matter where they live, with the tools necessary for keeping them healthy. Let us prioritize childhood immunization and safeguard the health and well-being of our international community.

Ruth Tetteh is a graduate student at Rutgers School of Public Health.

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