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U.N. Plans to Eliminate Child Deaths from Pneumonia and Severe Diarrhea

Update Date: Apr 12, 2013 03:33 PM EDT

U.N. agencies hope a new strategy for better sanitation and newer vaccines will eliminate child deaths from pneumonia and severe diarrhea by 2025.

The 10-year action plan targeting mainly Africa and South Asia is estimated to cost $6.0 billion. The "integrated" strategy aims to stop 2 million children under the age of five from dying each year due to these diseases.

"We believe the targets set within this plan are achievable and actually are achievable over the next decade," Elizabeth Mason, director of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health at the World Health Organization (WHO), said in news briefing.

"We are looking at targets for ending preventable child deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea by 2025," she said.

Approximately 2 million children die each year from the two diseases before they even reach the age of five. They are among 6.9 million children killed by causes including malaria, according to the WHO and U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).

"Children are dying because services are provided piecemeal and those most at risk are not being reached," they said.

UNICEF's goal is to reduce combined mortality from pneumonia and severe diarrhea from 20 deaths per 1,000 live births to fewer than 4 per 1,000 live births by 2025. The overall goal is to entirely eliminate these deaths by 2035.

The plan calls for 90 percent of children under five to have access to antibiotics for pneumonia and life-saving oral rehydration salts for diarrhea. This would mean tripling the current access rates.

The "integrated approach" begins with basic ways to protect children from infections, including breastfeeding, good nutrition, clean drinking water and sanitation, as well as reducing indoor air pollution by opting for cleaner cooking methods, rather than using charcoal.

The approach also relies on increasing the use of newer vaccines against pneumococcal bacteria, which is currently responsible for about 20 percent of severe pneumonia cases. The strategy also calls for using newer vaccines for rotavirus, which accounts for 28 percent of cases of severe diarrhea and is responsible for 50 percent of deaths from it, according to Reuters.

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Merck are major makers of rotavirus vaccines against diarrhea, which are sold as Rotarix and Rotateq. GSK and Pfizer make pneumococcal vaccines, Synflorix and Prevnar.

"We estimated the amount of funding would be just over $6 billion to 2025," Mason said. "If we look at it over a 10-year period, $600 million a year and divide it by the countries, for a relatively small amount you can actually get a huge impact."

The funding would have to come from national health budgets, which are often strapped. Better use of existing funds and partners, including GAVI, a non-profit alliance that funds vaccination programs for low-income countries, would also play a key role.

According to Mason, the expectation is that as more countries introduce the newer vaccines, which cost more than routine immunizations, the prices will fall, also ensuring sustainability.

"Pneumonia and diarrhea are linked to poverty," said Marilena Viviani of UNICEF, noting that poor communities usually have limited access to clean drinking water and sanitation.

"We know that poor children, notably in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, are those most at risk of dying from pneumonia and diarrhea and also less likely to be vaccinated," she said.

"Immunization is one of the best known strategies and most cost-effective strategies to reach these children."

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