Breastfeed, practise good hygiene and vaccinate your babies to protect them from pneumonia, a leading cause of death among children under five years old.

This was the message of experts speaking at a media dialogue about “Combatting Childhood Pneumonia In Malaysia: What’s Next?”.

Consultant paediatrician and Immunise4Life (IFL) Technical Committee chairman Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail described pneumonia as a serious lung disease that causes the air sacs (alveoli) to become filled with fluid or pus, resulting in pain and difficulty breathing.

The pneumonia-causing bacteria may also get into the bloodstream and spread throughout the body, possibly causing organ failure.

He remarked: “According to the World Health Organization, pneumonia accounts for 16% of all deaths among children under five years old.

“In 2016 alone, the disease killed 880,000 children within this age group across the globe. That year, pneumonia ranked as the third leading cause of death among the under-five’s in Malaysia.”

Speaking about how parents can protect their children against this deadly disease, Dr Zulkifli said: “We encourage exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

“It is akin to baby’s first immunisation because the breast milk contains antibodies that can help protect baby against pneumonia.

“After that, we have to give specific protection against organisms that cause pneumonia. These include bacteria (such as Haemophilus influenzae type b, pneumococcus and Bordetella pertussis) and viruses (such as measles, influenza and chickenpox).

“Personal hygiene, especially proper hand washing with soap and water, is also important in helping to keep the pneumonia-causing organisms at bay.”

Hospital Kuala Lumpur Paediatrics head Dr Hishamshah Mohd Ibrahim remarked that children under two years old are particularly vulnerable.

He explained: “Treating pneumonia in young children can be complex.

“The disease can progress rapidly and patients will require oxygen, IV drips to deliver strong antibiotics, and possibly surgery to drain their lungs.

“If lung failure occurs, we will need to put them on a ventilator machine to enable them to breathe.

“Pneumonia threatens all children, but those from poor families may be more adversely affected due to environmental factors, lower awareness of the disease, and limited resources for treatment.

“It is tragic to see children suffering or dying from this entirely preventable disease. In rare cases, survivors may also experience the life-long effects of permanent lung damage, caused by childhood pneumonia.

“It is better to prevent pneumonia in the first place.”

Pneumonia, pneumococcus, Streptococcus pneumoniae, vaccination,

At the “Combatting Childhood Pneumonia In Malaysia: What’s Next?” media dialogue session in conjunction with World Pneumonia Day 2018, are (from left) Dr Aminah, Dr Hishamshah and Dr Zulkifli.

Public health specialist and Health Ministry Family Health Division chief senior assistant director Dr Aminah Bee Mohd Kassim pointed out that pneumonia-causing organisms can spread through air-borne droplets emitted by infected persons when they cough or sneeze.

She said the government is currently providing the Hib, MMR and DTaP vaccines free of charge for infants under its National Immunisation Programme (NIP).

These vaccines confer protection against H. influenzae type b, measles and pertussis (whooping cough).

She also encourages parents to bring their babies to private clinics and hospitals to be vaccinated against influenza, chicken pox, and especially pneumococcus, to optimise their protection against vaccine-preventable pneumonia.

All three experts applauded the Government’s promise to provide free pneumococcal vaccination for children under two years old under the NIP.

Dr Zulkifli explained: “The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) confers life-long protection from the S. pneumoniae bacterium, which is the leading cause of severe pneumonia in children under five years old, accounting for one-third of deaths due to pneumonia globally.

“As of October 2018, 142 (out of a total of 195) countries already offer free pneumococcal vaccination through their national childhood immunisation programmes.

“Over 115 countries have opted to provide PCV13, which protects against 13 strains of the bacterium. PCV10, which protects against 10 strains, is the other available option.

“While waiting for the inclusion of pneumococcal vaccination into our own National Immunisation Programme, we would like to advise all parents to talk to their doctors about pneumococcal vaccination for their children.”

PCV is indicated for ages two months onwards and is administered in three to four doses at two, four, six, and 12 through 15 months of age.

The event was organised by the IFL community education programme to commemorate World Pneumonia Day 2018. IFL is a tripartite collaboration involving the Health Ministry, professional bodies (principally the Malaysian Paediatric Association and Malaysian Society of Infectious Diseases and Chemotherapy) and private corporations.