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 â€“ 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.
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 â€“ 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.