Huma Khawar, freelance journalist and consultant for Vaccine Implementation Technical Advisory Consortium (VITAC).
A little girl with her vaccination card. Photo: Gavi/Doune Porter
Doctors from across Pakistan gathered in Islamabad last Thursday to fight a disease that’s threatening children across the country. This time it wasn’t polio they were working against, but pneumonia, which kills as many as 71,000 children every year in Pakistan.
The event, held to mark World Pneumonia Day, aimed to empower key influencers to better advocate to stop pneumonia and discuss challenges to its prevention. It took place at the Children’s Hospital, Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS), which itself sees many cases of the disease with a daily turnover of over 500 children in its outpatient department from in and around Islamabad.
The entrance to the seminar. Photo: Huma Khawar.
The pneumococcal vaccine was rolled out in Pakistan in 2012 as part of the routine immunization schedule, when it had already helped children in many other countries avoid pneumonia. It is also proving effective in Pakistan, as Dr. Asad Ali, from Aga Khan University Karachi, demonstrated by sharing preliminary findings from the vaccine impact assessment in Sindh. He explained that even one dose of pneumococcal vaccine is highly effective against the main germs that cause pneumonia (pneumococcus and Hib).
However, pneumonia is still one of the major killers of children under five years old in Pakistan. A major reason is limited routine immunization coverage – a little more than 50% of children are covered by a basic set of vaccines nationally, and the numbers of children immunized has even been declining in Balochistan. As a result, pneumococcal vaccine faces challenges reaching children across the whole country through this system, and so its population-level effects cannot yet be expected to be significant.
Doctors estimated that this underperformance is fuelled by caregivers’ lack of awareness. Too few parents know that the vaccine is necessary for child health, free-of-cost and available at immunization centers nationally. Yet improving vaccine coverage is crucial, as once infected, access to treatment options for infants remain limited especially in Pakistan’s rural, impoverished regions. Dr. Syed Saqlain Ahmad Gillani, National Immunization Program Manager, concluded the session by voicing support for a public-private health sector partnership to increase routine immunization coverage in the country.
One presentation from the day. Photo: Huma Khawar.
Facing such a challenge, medical professionals are not the only ones who need to advocate for vaccination against pneumonia. Following the conclusion of the main session, an advocacy session tailored for teachers and headmistresses of public schools was initiated during which they were informed of the need to prevent pneumonia through other proven, low-cost techniques such as immunization, sound hygienic practices and balanced diets for infants and exclusive breast feeding for six months, ensuring good nutrition.
The teachers also shared various risk factors which make children more prone to pneumonia. Poor parental healthcare seeking was one: when children with severe pneumonia often undergo of trial and error at the field levels, before they actually reach the health facility for the right treatment in time.
Exposure to indoor smoke, which in rural Pakistan is an issue for more than 60% of families, is also damaging beyond imagination. There, an average household size is seven, which makes overcrowding (i.e the number of people sharing same room where children sleep) is another important factor contributing to pneumonia.
The teachers agreed that, more than ever before, we know how to protect and prevent children from catching pneumonia, and how to treat those suffering with this illness. They returned home to spread the message.