Burning eyes, scratchy throat, and frequent cough. If you live in north India, you may have woken up with these symptoms this last week. With the air quality fluctuating between poor, severe and hazardous, it is essential to take precautions, especially if you have small children or the elderly at home.
What you may not know, is that outdoor and indoor air pollution are directly linked to infectious diseases like pneumonia and other respiratory conditions. Air pollution is a risk factor in almost one in 10 deaths of children below the age of five, making air pollution a leading danger to children’s health.
Outdoor air pollution is caused by factors like road dust, vehicular pollution, crop burning, and industrial smoke. Indoor air pollution, on the other hand, is caused when people cook and heat their homes using wood, charcoal, and other solid fuels on open fires or leaky stoves. Indoor air pollution can be especially harmful due to the incredibly high concentration of pollutants in a confined space. It can double the risk of pneumonia in children under five.
Most people fail to acknowledge how grave pneumonia can be among young children. Pneumonia is the leading infectious cause of death among children below five years of age. Almost 1.8 lakh children in India do not get to see their fifth birthday due to this disease.
Pneumonia is a form of acute respiratory infection that causes inflammation and fluid accumulation in the lungs. Pneumonia is a syndrome that has many causes, including viral, bacterial and fungal pathogens. The disease makes breathing difficult, painful and limits oxygen intake. Imagine young children and the suffering they have to endure– coughing, difficulty in breathing, chest in-drawing, wheezing. If infants are severely ill, they may also be unable to eat or drink and may experience unconsciousness, convulsions, and even death.
The good news is, pneumonia is preventable. You can protect your child from pneumonia by giving him/her immunization, adequate nutrition, including breastfeeding exclusively up to 6 months and reducing indoor air pollution. And, in case pneumonia does occur, there is no need to panic! The disease can be curable with timely diagnosis and treatment, often including use of antibiotics.
Immunization is one of the most effective interventions for tackling pneumonia. Several vaccines are available to prevent infectious causes of pneumonia, including against pathogens such as Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), pneumococcus, measles, and whooping cough.
In our country, the government is resolutely determined to defeat the scourge of pneumonia. Immunizing our nation’s children against the pathogens that can cause pneumonia is an important part of this strategy. Earlier this year, a new vaccine called PCV, which protects against multiple types of a bacterium called pneumococcus, was launched in three states (Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar) as part of the Universal Immunization Programme. Our hope is that this vaccine will be expanded to all states across India soon.
Another vaccine, which protects against pneumonia, meningitis, and other conditions caused by the Hib bacterium, is already available in all states as part of the pentavalent vaccine. Pentavalent vaccine also includes protection against four other pathogens, including pertussis, or whooping cough, which can also lead to pneumonia. Lastly, the Measles-Rubella vaccine is currently being rolled out throughout India, with an aim of eliminating measles and controlling congenital rubella syndrome by 2020.
Children are the hope of any healthy and prosperous nation. But to make a healthy and prosperous nation a reality, we must ensure that every child has access to quality healthcare. This cannot be achieved by policymakers, activists and experts alone. All our communities and every citizen must unite for this cause. Let’s stand for the children and give them a fighting shot at good health!
The author of this piece is Dr. Anupam Sachdev, National President, Indian Academy of Pediatrics and Director Pediatric Hematology Oncology and Bone Marrow Transplantation Institute For Child Health Sir Ganga Ram Hospital