New Delhi: At the time of filing this report, the Air Quality Index (AQI) in Delhi stood at 324, at the severe category.
At this level, it is tough to breathe and children, pregnant women and elderly citizens are advised not to step out. However, as studies estimate, the damage of years of breathing bad air has already been done.
Acute respiratory infections, often triggered by pollution, poor hygiene and bacterial infections, is the top communicable disease accounting for nearly 70% of all communicable diseases in India in 2018 with pneumonia being the biggest killer infection, according to the National Health Profile (NHP), 2019.
Dr Randeep Guleria, Director, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and a leading lung health expert, told News18, “Pollution is the leading risk factor for lung disease in India, and a major contributor to pneumonia and lung cancer.”
The NHP recorded 41,996,260 cases and 3,740 deaths from acute respiratory infections across India in 2018. In 2017, acute respiratory infections accounted for 69% of the total cases of communicable diseases and caused 23% of such deaths. There were as many as 40,810,524 cases and 3,164 deaths from such infections.
The UNICEF, in its own assessment, has put India in the second rank in terms of the number of deaths caused by pneumonia.
Most deaths occurred among children under the age of two. India accounts for 1.27 lakh deaths owing to pneumonia, ahead of Pakistan and Bangladesh. Only Nigeria is ahead of our country with 1.62 lakh such deaths.
Globally, the disease accounts for 8 lakh deaths, one child every 39 seconds and just five countries are responsible for more than half of child pneumonia deaths — Nigeria (1,62,000), India (1,27,000), Pakistan (58,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (40,000) and Ethiopia (32,000).
Dr Karan Madan, associate professor of pulmonary medicine, said, “Fifty per cent of childhood pneumonia deaths are associated with air pollution. It also affects the adults and is a leading cause of death and air pollution is associated with increased risk of pneumonia.”
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of UNICEF, said “Every day, nearly 2,200 children under the age of five die from pneumonia, a curable and mostly preventable disease. Strong global commitment and increased investments are critical to the fight against this disease. Only through cost-effective protective, preventative and treatment interventions would we be able to truly save millions of lives.”
More children under the age of five died from the disease in 2018 than from any other ailments. As many as 4,37,000 children under the age of five died due to diarrhea, while claimed 2,72,000 lives, said the UNICEF.
Kevin Watkins, Chief Executive of Save the Children, said, “This is a forgotten global epidemic that demands an urgent international response. Millions of children are dying for want of vaccines, affordable antibiotics and routine oxygen treatment. The pneumonia crisis is a symptom of neglect and indefensible inequalities in access to health care.”
In 2018, 71 million children did not receive the recommended three doses of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV), putting them at a higher risk of being affected by the infection. Globally, 32% children with suspected pneumonia are not taken to a health facility. That figure rises to 40% for the poorest children in low- and middle-income countries.
Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi, and leaves children fighting for breath as their lungs fill with pus and fluid. Children with immune systems weakened by other infections like HIV or by malnutrition and those living in areas with high levels of air pollution and unsafe water, are at far greater risk.
The disease can be prevented with vaccines and easily treated with low-cost antibiotics if properly diagnosed. But tens of millions of children are still going unvaccinated – and one in three with symptoms do not receive essential medical care.
Children with severe cases of pneumonia may also require oxygen treatment, which is rarely available in the poorest countries to the children who need it.
Funding available to tackle pneumonia lags far behind other diseases. Only 3% of current global infectious disease research spending is allocated to pneumonia, despite the disease causing 15% of deaths in children under the age of five.