How many of these deaths could have been prevented if health systems were equipped to effectively treat respiratory infections we don’t know. But the numbers may be in the millions.
What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic must be an inflection point for pneumonia control in every country. Nations must never again be blindsided by another respiratory pandemic and suffer mass fatalities as a result. They must begin to address their massive burdens of pneumonia from other causes among both children and adults. If they don’t, they will remain dangerously exposed to another respiratory pandemic and at risk of failing to achieve many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for health, especially reducing maternal, newborn and child deaths (SDGs 3.1, 3.2) and communicable and non-communicable disease burdens (SDGs 3.3, 3.4).
Why? Because the tools that reduce pneumonia deaths will also reduce deaths from these other causes and conditions.
The Missing Piece makes the case for a total reboot of the way governments and global health agencies invest in pneumonia. Many have already begun to do so in response to the pandemic and shouldn’t stop once the pandemic is over.
National governments should turn their pandemic response plans into Pneumonia Control Strategies to drive declines in deaths from all-cause respiratory infections over the next decade and reduce the risk of another respiratory pandemic. They should set ambitious pneumonia mortality reduction targets for both children and adults and ensure that interventions are targeted to the populations at greatest risk of death. The costs of pneumonia vaccinations, diagnostic tests, and treatments should be covered as part of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) so that patients don’t incur massive bills.
For the countries which cannot cover these costs from national budgets, global health agencies should continue to provide the financial support they initiated during the pandemic. Gavi should keep subsidizing COVID-19 vaccinations among adults, and add pneumococcal, influenza, and RSV (when available) to the list. UN agencies (e.g., Unitaid, WHO, UNICEF, UNDP, UNOPS, etc) should continue to finance diagnostic tools and treatments for respiratory infections, especially pulse oximetry and oxygen.
And private philanthropies (e.g., Wellcome Trust, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, ELMA Philanthropies, Skoll Foundation, etc.) should continue to support local non-government organizations to strengthen respiratory care services that serve the most vulnerable.
Although COVID-19 exposed the tragic flaw in the global health architecture, it has also revealed just how much global health agencies and their donors can do when pressed to invest in pneumonia control. When the leading infectious killer is also prone to devastating pandemics, the cost of not prioritizing it will be measured in millions of lives lost every year and millions more every time a respiratory infection pandemic strikes.
This is the only way that a world in which pneumonia deaths and pandemics are rare in every country is achievable.
Read the full report here and support by sharing on twitter via @Stop_Pneumonia and @JustActions.
The Missing Piece report was launched on 11 October 2021.