Pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Infections in Peru

Every year, pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections (ARIs) kill 50,000 children under the age of five in Latin America. According to the World Health Organization, at least 15% of the overall deaths in young children in Peru are caused by ARIs – diseases that are completely treatable, but that often go ignored. Unfortunately, this number may actually be even higher due to reporting inconsistencies in many developing countries. When patients with these types of issues are encountered during our Mobile Clinics, MEDLIFE helps to treat colds and other respiratory illnesses before they develop into more severe problems. ARIs include viral and bacterial pneumonia, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). Bacterial pneumonia can be caused by Streptococcus pneumonia or Haemophilus influenza type b, among other bacteria and viruses. ARIs cause coughs, fevers, body aches, chills, headaches, suppressed appetite, nausea, and noisy breathing. When they reach an acute level, children have difficult or rapid breathing, blue lips or fingers, and a fever of over 102 F. Children are especially vulnerable to these types of problems because they do not have fully developed respiratory tracts, and are often times unable to ask for the help that they need. In developing countries, problems such as pollution, overcrowding, limited medical access, poor nutritional status, and lack of vaccines also increase the risk. Furthermore, common health problems such as diarrhea decrease immune function and contribute to a child’s risk of dying from a respiratory illness. A study by the Acute Respiratory Infection Atlas showed that children who have to share a room with four or more people have an increased risk of 2.5 times. Overall, in developing countries, (where 93% percent of children are not vaccinated) 7,300 of 100,000 children die from pneumonia.


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Although pneumonia itself is not contagious, the viruses that cause it are. These viruses can spread rapidly in overcrowded houses, where it is difficult not to share germs. In the communities that MEDLIFE works with in Peru, many families live in small, one-room houses that they sometimes share with more than one family. They have high rates of indoor pollution because their houses lack proper ventilation, and their communities lack basic services such as garbage collection and plumbing systems. In addition, families in Lima also deal with the health challenges that accompany rapid urbanization, such as air pollution and dust. As a result of these challenges, acute respiratory infections in Peru have increased by 30 percent in the last four years despite government programs to educate parents about prevention and symptoms (The Guardian, 2010). Over 76,000 children in rural areas of Peru were treated last year for ARIs (Solaris). MEDLIFE attempts to address the issues of sanitation, hygiene, and indoor pollution through educational workshops, such as our parent education programs at local day care centers.

Some of the most important factors in preventing ARIs are providing children with proper nutrition so that they have optimal lung health, and increasing zinc consumption so that they are better able to fight off infection. A study by Sazawal et al. found that Zinc supplementation can decrease respiratory infections by as much as 45 percent. Encouraging women to breastfeed exclusively for 6 months and partially for at least a year will also help protect infants. MEDLIFE also addresses this subject of nutrition in our Mobile Clinic education station, and in community workshops.

Most of the time, treating pneumonia is just a simple and cheap course of antibiotics – yet, parents do not seek out or do not have access to help. Most of the factors in preventing child deaths are relatively simple, but because ARIs are not a current health trend, they are not getting the funding that they need. According to the Acute Respiratory Infection Atlas, donors are currently prioritizing diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis over respiratory problems. Although MEDLIFE does not currently have a specific campaign against ARIs, we are working to combat them through treatment during our Mobile Clinics and through education programs that address several of the root causes of these diseases.



Hear it From MEDLIFErs

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Reya Seby
Western University

This trip motivated me more to pursue a career in the healthcare field so that I can use my resources to help those who need it the most, similar to MEDLIFE’s mission.

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Victoria DiCanio
University of Connecticut

It was most enjoyable to finish the hard work and see how big a difference a group of individuals can make. It was such an amazing experience.

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Anita Woo
University of Toronto

I enjoyed the mobile clinics the most, especially the dental and triage portions. I would definitely recommend a MEDLIFE trip, it was a great experience.

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David Saff
Maclay High School

The most enjoyable part of my trip was hanging out with the amazing group of kids I was with. I would highly recommend a MEDLIFE volunteer trip to others.

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Sydney Sansone
Nova Southeastern University

This trip made everything that I was learning in my public health courses come to life and immersed me in a new culture while also learning about medicine.

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Abygail Youmans
College of Charleston

Being involved with MEDLIFE is not like joining another club - its bigger than that. It is about joining a movement that seeks to help change people’s quality of life for forever.

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Emi Hofmann
University of Central Florida

Not only was I able to participate in a week long Mobile Clinic, shadowing doctors of all types of specialties including pharmacy, dentistry, gynecology, and more, but I was also able to learn about the culture and visit incredible places.

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Julian Takagi-Stewart
University of Toronto

One thing that I really loved about this trip was that MEDLIFE made sure that the volunteers got an understanding of the complexity of issues that lead to underprivileged people in communities outside of the main city

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Hannah Van Hofwegen
University of Ottawa

Whether it was basketball with the local kids, assisting the doctors, talking with families, building washrooms, holding babies, or spending time with the people who were on the SLT with me, this was an amazing opportunity that I would do over and over again.

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Isabelle Holt
Cornell University

I loved learning about the patients MEDLIFE has followed and how they offer real help to people with chronic/urgent conditions. It is amazing how the organization formed real connections with the communities.

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Valerie Lindeborg

Our family had the privilege of participating in multiple trips with Nick [founder] and his amazing staff. Their expertise made the trips unforgettable while instilling in my boys the fundamentals of good character: selflessness, compassion, and empathy.

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Harry Vildibill
University of Georgia

As an aspiring physician, MEDLIFE motivated me to further continue my goal of becoming a doctor. In fact, I enjoyed the Tanzania Service Learning Trip so much that I decided to go on another trip to Cusco, Peru.