The Number 1 Killer of Children Under the Age of 5

Lying in a hospital bed, Nyamal is fighting for her life. Every breath for her is laborious and difficult. Her little chest draws in tightly around her ribs each time she breathes, as she strains with all her muscles to suck in the precious air. Her palms are pale and her lips are bluish revealing signs of low oxygen in the blood. She is shaking with fever and unconscious. As I put the oxygen mask on her face and start to give Nyamal the antibiotics she desperately needs to fight the infection, I notice her mother holding her hand as tightly as she can. She lost one baby like this before, and she can’t afford to lose another one, she says.

Ana Leticia’s blog post from a refugee camp in Ethiopia tells a painfully familiar story. Dr Leticia is a doctor working for the medical humanitarian agency, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and she’s overseen too many cases like Nyamal.  The child’s suffering and her parent’s silent agony is played out in MSF clinics and around the developing world many times every day.

Gambella region, vaccination campaign in 3 camps

#1 killer of children under five in developing countries.

What’s killing Nyamal is pneumonia, a bacterial disease that infects the lungs. A child dies of pneumonia every 35 seconds – it is the main killer of children under five years old. And those deaths occur almost universally in developing countries. 

An effective vaccine to save young lives

And yet there is an effective vaccine to prevent these pointless deaths.  It’s the pneumonia vaccine and it improves a child’s chance of avoiding the infection by more than 90%.

But despite the essential protection this vaccine provides, three out of four children globally still don’t get all the shots of the pneumonia vaccine they need to save their lives. 

Why is this allowed to happen?  Why does Nyamal have to suffer pointlessly, and so many others like her? 

A key answer is that the price of the pneumonia vaccine is too high and manygovernments in developing countries simply can’t afford to buy it for their children.  

Benefits of pneumonia vaccine withheld from millions of children in developing countries

Today, the cost of the pneumonia vaccine for the poorest countries, even after heavy subsidies from donors, is US$ 10 for each child.  That price may not be affordable in the longer term in places where health spending per capita rarely rises above a handful of dollars per person each year. So while the vast majority of children in developed countries  - in London, New York, Paris – are safe, protected by this vaccine from the  disease, many more mothers like Nyamal’s who live in developing countries, continue to undergo the trauma of seeing their children sicken and die of a preventable illness. 

Humanitarian agencies also denied vaccine at affordable price

Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders/MSF is a medical humanitarian aid agency and its founding mission is to offer urgently needed medical services in places with absent or very fragile healthcare provision. Places like refugee camps, areas of war and conflict or natural disasters, precisely where children are the most vulnerable to diseases such as pneumonia, measles and other childhood killers.

That’s why MSF has recently started vaccinating refugee children with the pneumonia vaccine in camps in South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia where they and their families are living in particularly vulnerable and exposed circumstances. Many lives have been saved. 

But there are still so many more children who could benefit, pushing MSF in to negotiations with the two pharmaceutical manufacturers, GSK and Pfizer, in an effort to get them to drop the price of this vaccine. Five years on, these discussions have delivered very little and for the sake of children like Nyamal, MSF has now decided to ratchet up the pressure, and take the issue to a wider public, as Dr. Greg Elder, Director of MSF Operations in Paris, explains;  

After seeing the price to vaccinate a child rise substantially over the past decade, we have no choice but to take action now. As doctors who have seen too many children die of pneumonia, struggling to breathe, we are asking anyone who cares about children’s lives to join our public call on Pfizer and GSK to make sure all developing countries can afford to protect all their babies against this killer disease.
— Dr. Greg Elder, Director of MSF Operations in Paris

A short time after Dr Leticia blogged about Nyamal’s suffering,  MSF carried out a pneumonia vaccination campaign inside the refugee camp where she was working, helping to protect the children in the camp. 

MSF has recently launched a global public campaign, A Fair Shot, to put pressure on the pharmaceutical companies, GSK and Pfizer, to drop the price of the pneumonia vaccine to US$ 5 a child (for all three doses). If you’d like to add your voice to the campaign, follow this link: