About pneumonia

Child admitted to Kilifi County Hospital with pneumonia, Kenya

Pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, is the leading killer of children under 5 years of age worldwide and accounts for 15% of all deaths. In Kenya, 235,000 episodes of pneumonia occur annually among children under 5 years of age, resulting in 16,000 deaths.

What causes pneumonia?

Pneumonia can be caused by different pathogens, primarily bacteria or viruses. Bacteria such as Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) cause the most severe and most fatal forms of pneumonia. The introduction of the Hib vaccination in 2001 in Kenya resulted in an 88% drop in pneumonia caused by Hib bacteria. Streptococcus pneumoniae or pneumococcus is now the leading cause of severe pneumonia.

How do pneumococcal bacteria spread?

Pneumococcal bacteria normally reside in the back of the noses and throats of children and adults and can be spread through coughing and sneezing. Most of the time the bacteria live in the nose and throat and are harmless. However, sometimes pneumococcal bacteria can invade the body and cause invasive pneumococcal disease (IPD), which can manifest as pneumonia, bloodstream infection, or meningitis, a very serious infection of the covering of the brain and spinal cord. Those most at risk of IPD are the elderly and children under five, especially those with weak immune systems (e.g., those who are malnourished or have HIV infection).

What happens when you get pneumonia?

When a person has pneumonia, the lungs fill with fluid and the passage of oxygen from the air that is breathed in to the blood is greatly reduced. Body organs fail to receive enough oxygen and cannot function optimally. This can lead to death.

How do you prevent people getting pneumonia?

While timely recognition of pneumonia and provision of antibiotics can reduce pneumonia deaths, this can be challenging and it is, therefore, preferable to prevent pneumonia before it occurs. Ensuring that children have adequate nutrition, including exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life, can help protect them from pneumonia. Reducing environmental risk factors, such as overcrowding in homes, exposure to tobacco smoke and indoor air pollution are also important protective measures. In addition, the use of vaccines against pneumococcus, Hib, and other diseases is critical to the prevention of pneumonia.