WHO and UNICEF launch new plan to cut deaths from diarrhoea and pneumonia

A new global action plan, launched today by WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), has the potential to save up to 2 million children every year from death caused by pneumonia and diarrhoea, some of the leading killers of children under 5 globally.

The integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea calls for closer integration of efforts to prevent and treat the two diseases and sets ambitious targets to reduce mortality rates and raise levels of children’s access to life-saving interventions.

Mortality from diarrhoea and pneumonia in Europe

Mortality rates in children aged under 5 years have steadily declined in the WHO European Region in recent years. Every year, however, more than 160 000 children in the Region die before their fifth birthdays.

Pneumonia accounts for 12% of all deaths in children under 5 in the Region, and diarrhoea, 4%.

Introducing vaccines to tackle diarrhoea and pneumonia

Many factors influence the incidence of diarrhoea and pneumonia. As part of integrated efforts – such as promoting breastfeeding, preventing HIV infection, using safe water and improved sanitation, and ensuring access to health services and medicines - to prevent, control and treat diarrhoea and pneumonia, WHO/Europe also works with countries to speed up the introduction of vaccines to address these illnesses.

The use of vaccines against measles and pertussis in national immunization programmes substantially reduces pneumonia illness and deaths in children. Vaccines against Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b, the two most common bacterial causes of childhood pneumonia, and against rotavirus, the most common cause of childhood diarrhoea deaths, substantially reduce both disease burden and deaths.

So far, 28 countries in the WHO European Region have introduced pneumococcal vaccines into their schedules, typically providing 3 doses to children aged 2–18 months.

In January 2013, WHO published updated recommendations on the use of rotavirus vaccine, indicating that it should be included in all national immunization programmes and considered a priority. In the European Region, 8 countries have introduced immunization against rotavirus, with 1 more planning to introduce use of the vaccine from January 2014. Vaccines are provided to children aged 2–6 months, in 2–3 doses, depending on the vaccine.

WHO/Europe supports surveillance to collect regional and national data on the occurrence of diarrhoea and pneumonia both before and after vaccine introduction. This information is needed for national decision-making about vaccine introduction; these data, with data on vaccine coverage , are also used to monitor the subsequent impact of vaccine use.