Your last breath: Raising awareness on World Pneumonia Day

Every year, pneumonia affects millions of the most vulnerable people in our society. But although the most high profile cases often involve elderly celebrities, pneumonia is one of the leading causes of death for children under five. In this blog, Prof Ger Rijkers, co-Editor-in-Chief of Pneumonia, talks about why pneumonia is such a dangerous disease and what we can do to stop it. Read it here.

In 2011, Betty White was invited on to the Late Show with David Letterman to reveal her 10 Tips for a Long and Happy Life. You may know Betty as Rose from the Golden Girls series. Her #3 tip was, “Try not to die”. Today, 7 years later and at the age of 96, she is succeeding: alive and (sometimes) kicking.

Many of her contemporaries did not. Nelson Mandela, Chuck Berry and Fred Astaire. Do you know the common denominator? Hint: on November 12th, it is World Pneumonia Day.

Nelson Mandela contracted pneumonia at the age 95 and did not recover. Chuck Berry, the grandfather of Rock and Roll, suffered from pneumonia shortly before his death last year at the respectable age of 90. Fred Astaire, the dancer, singer and actor died at the age of 88. However, do you have to be very old to die of pneumonia? No, Freddy Mercury died of pneumonia at the age of 45, as a complication of AIDS. Calamity Jane, the famed American frontierswoman, was 51.

The list of famous people who have died is long, and we have not even mentioned Groucho Marx, Leo Tolstoy, Bob Hope, James Brown, or Beatrix Potter. However, the list of unidentified people who have died of pneumonia is much longer and includes many, many children. Every year almost a million children all over the world die from pneumonia before their 5th birthday. They did not live a long and happy life. For them, it ended before it really started.

These signs and symptoms may vary from mild to severe, but the more vulnerable the patient, the more serious the pneumonia.

Young children are especially vulnerable to pneumonia because their immune system is not yet fully developed, and in particular it cannot respond yet to the prime bacterial pathogen that causes pneumonia: Streptococcus pneumoniae. Other vulnerable groups are patients with an otherwise weakened immune system, often due to another underlying disease or a poor nutritional status due to poverty.

As you can see, pneumonia primarily affects the most vulnerable among us. It is a cruel and complex infectious disease that attacks the lungs, causing inflammation of the lung sacs, which then become filled with fluid. This causes cough, fever, chills, and difficulty breathing. These signs and symptoms may vary from mild to severe, but the more vulnerable the patient, the more serious the pneumonia.

It will be a formidable task to stop the spread of pneumonia, and an even harder one to eradicate the disease. The joint UN/WHO/UNICEF initiative Stop Pneumonia aims to “Protect, Prevent, and Treat” the illness. For this reason, every year November 12th is marked as World Pneumonia Day. World Pneumonia Day hopes to raise awareness for the disease, and promote any action that contributes to protection, prevention and treatment of pneumonia. It is good to remember Nelson Mandela on that day. It is better to think about all the children currently at risk. Best of all is not just to think, but to act!

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