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Global Health Issues That Don't Get the Attention They Need: Pneumonia and Diarrhea

They’re called the child killers. Pneumonia and diarrhea are the two biggest killers of children under five years old in the world.

This is part of a series of stories on topics that are underreported in global health and development.

They’re called the child killers. Pneumonia and diarrhea are the two biggest killers of children under five years old in the world, but are definitely not sexy topics of discussion and tend to get overlooked in favor of other causes of child mortality.


The mortality rate for children under five worldwide has decreased by 47 percent from 1990 to today, according to the latest United Nations figures. That decrease needs to be accelerated by 2015 in order to meet Millennium Development Goal #4, to reduce the under-five child mortality rate by two-thirds from 1990 to 2015.

And while funding has poured open for some child survival programs, experts say there is still a critical gap in addressing pneumonia and diarrhea. While Angelina Jolie stridently campaigns for refugees, Sting agitates for the Amazonian rainforest, and Matt Damon puts himself out there with the uneasy topic of toilets and water access, nobody particularly wants to be the face of an anti-diarrhea campaign.

The same has been true of funding, experts say. “If you look at all the donors and all the different funding structures, and how that actually has matched to the MDG 4 goals, I think that’s a story worth writing, because I think you’ll see there hasn’t actually been a tight fit,” said Leith Greenslade, co-chair of child health for the MDG Health Alliance, during a recent briefing for journalists on the sidelines of UN Week.

“In child survival, what we really needed was funding for pneumonia and diarrhea. That didn’t come,” Greenslade said. “I hope in the next iteration, we’ll get smarter about that, and I think we will.”

An estimated two million children die every year from pneumonia and diarrhea, according to UN figures. The best way to prevent the illnesses includes ensuring access to clean water and adequate sanitation practices, building up health care infrastructure so that a primary care facility is within reach for even the most far-flung of villages, and ensuring good nutrition.

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