The Unknown Killer

SenFrist Final

Dr. Bill Frist, Save the Children's Newborn and Child Survival campaign chairman

Nashville, Tenn.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Even some physicians I know are amazed when they hear that the leading killer of children under age 5 in the developing world is pneumonia. Not malaria. Not AIDS. A highly preventable and treatable illness is claiming 1.5 million young lives every year.

 Vaccines exist which can prevent the leading causes of pneumonia and cost-effective antibiotics can treat most cases.  If developing countries had these vaccines and medicines, more than a million children could be saved each year.

 That’s why Save the Children and more than 100 health and humanitarian organizations have joined forces to promote World Pneumonia Day this November 12th. We know if Americans understand that children are dying needlessly, they will take action to help.  

 This is a problem with a proven solution. And few causes can offer a better return on investment.  A course of antibiotics can treat most cases for less than $1. Other low-cost prevention measures include exclusive breastfeeding for six months, ensuring good nutrition, reducing air pollution, washing hands and preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV. No other interventions currently available have the potential to save children’s lives at this scale.

 So why are we still losing this battle?  Many children who contract pneumonia simply do not get the care they need. Though it is common, it is rarely diagnosed, as few caregivers can recognize the symptoms and begin treatment in time.

 The current critical shortage of 4.3 million health care workers is another reason more children do not receive prompt diagnosis and care. Community health care workers can fill this gap, learning in just a few months of training how to use a simple timer to measure breaths and providing lifesaving care to children in the hardest-to-reach places, where most deaths occur. 

 We need more pneumonia fighters on the front lines. Join the World Pneumonia Day movement and see how breathtakingly easy it can be to save a child’s life.   

Former Republican Senate majority leader Bill Frist, a physician, is chairman of Save the Children’s Newborn and Child Survival campaign.

Nafy’s Story: Kangaroo Mother Care in Mali

R10-MA__-70a Dr. Nialen Kaba, Save the Children, project assistant for newborn survival and health

Bamako, Mali

April 14, 2010

I met Nafy on a visit to the Kangaroo Mother Care unit at Gabriel Toure Hospital in Bamako, Mali this past December. She was proud to be carrying her newborn son on her chest.

At delivery, Nafy was upset when the midwife told her that her baby was very small, weighing only 1200 grams (2.6 pounds). When her husband Adama learned of the baby’s condition, his joy quickly faded and he decided not to give the child a name. So, Nafy named him Ismael.

The day after Ismael was born, he was transferred to the pediatrics unit of the hospital. Expecting the worst, Nafy was relieved to learn that her baby had no abnormalities. However, because he was born premature, he would need to be kept warm to help him gain weight and grow.

She was told about Kangaroo Mother Care, a recently accepted practice in Mali that when coupled with a mother’s determination could help Ismael survive. 

View a photo essay featuring moms and babies in the Kangaroo Mother Care ward at Gabriel Toure Hospital in Bamako, Mali.

Nafy quickly adopted the Kangaroo Mother Care method in hopes of seeing her baby survive. She was forced to cope with Ismael alone because her husband Adama and his family were convinced that her efforts would be in vain. 

Their reaction only reinforced Nafy’s resolve. She practiced Kangaroo Mother Care and Ismael gained weight day by day. 

Her slogan was, “She who gives birth to a snake, attaches him to her waist.” The slogan means: Whatever the physical and mental condition of her baby, a mother is always ready to do whatever it takes to help her child survive. 

Each year, about 900,000 newborns worldwide die due to premature births. In Mali, more than 14 percent of newborns are born premature, according to the 2006 Mali Demographic Health Survey. But since the kangaroo care center opened 20 months ago, sover 550 babies have benefitted.

Learn how more than 50 percent of newborn deaths could be saved through Kangaroo Mother Care.

On the day I visited Nafy, Ismael was entering his third week of life.  He weighed 2800 grams (6 pounds) and wiggled to break free from the chest of his mother, who never stopped smiling.

Learn more about Survive to 5, Save the Children's campaign to save the lives of children under 5.