The United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has announced that Nigerian children made up the highest number of global child deaths from pneumonia, with an estimate of 162,000 deaths in 2018. The country is followed by five countries: India (127,000), Pakistan (58,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (40,000), and Ethiopia (32,000).
It is worrisome that this statistic about Nigeria is in tune with similar health-related statistics. Currently in Nigeria, mortality of children under five is still about 100-150 deaths per 1,000. In the northern part of the country, especially in Zamfara State, the rate is about 200-250 per 1,000 children. Neonatal mortality in Nigeria is still more than 35 per 1,000 live births.
Further, more than 40% of one-year-olds in Nigeria are unvaccinated,while three in four children suffering from pneumonia symptoms do not get access to medical treatment. Also, Save the Children UK Ambassador, Florence Otedola, confirmed that Nigeria spent just $10 per person on health care in 2015, in contrast to the $86 minimum level recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The budget allocation to health even in 2020 does not suggest the likelihood of radical difference in terms of staffing of primary health centres.
Pneumonia is a respiratory-track disease that is caused by bacterial, viral infections or fungi; it is most fatal to children under two years. But it is treatable with antibiotics and preventable with vaccine. Many of the risk factors for this disease abound in Nigeria: outdoor and indoor pollution, unsanitary environment, malnutrition, poverty and poor access to health facilities soon after infection, for quick diagnosis and treatment, etc.
Unfortunately, most of the things needed for prevention or cure seem to be hardly available to children of the poor in the country. For example, the vaccine to prevent this disease is not available to over 40% of children that need it, and most hospitals do not provide oxygen supplement that children with infection require for survival. What is most troubling is that child mortality from pneumonia in Nigeria is getting worse. For example, in 2016, pneumonia killed 140,500 children, 20,000 less than the disease killed in 2018. And this is despite several assurances that all tiers of government claimed to be doing better than in 2015 when they first came to power.
But the reasons for this failure are not hard to identify. The primary health care (PHC) system started about 30 years ago is still not functioning as it should. Many communities do not have PHC facility. Only 25 per cent of the 30,000 PHC centres is adjudged by experts to be fully functional. The Federal Government’s effort to revive 1,000 of nominal facilities in 2017 is still unfolding. Existing PHC centres lack proper infrastructure, have inadequate medical supplies, lack adequate staff, and lack electricity supply. Many, if not most of the infants with the highest risk factors for pneumonia are born into communities that depend solely on such PHC facilities. Any surprise that parents of such children resort to unorthodox treatment for such a deadly disease?
It is sad when a country loses its future to preventable diseases such as pneumonia. It shows that our governments at all levels don’t have a good mechanism in place to combat infant mortality. It is, therefore, important that the governments take advantage of the development of the National Integrated Pneumonia Control Strategy being offered by health development partners. Appeals by UNICEF, Save the Children, Every Breath Counts Coalition are wake-up calls on governments at all levels to be alive to their responsibilities to stem the tide of preventable deaths of the country’s most innocent and vulnerable demographic group.
The advice of the Acting UNICEF representative in Nigeria, Pernille Ironside: “Increased investment is critical to the fight against this disease. Only through cost-effective protective, preventative and treatment interventions delivered to where children are – including especially the most vulnerable and hardest-to-reach – will we be able to save hundreds of thousands of lives in Nigeria” is apt for amplification in all tiers of government.