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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: Pneumonia Day raises awareness

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The Ethiopian mother walked as fast as she could. She had another two-hour trek to the nearest health care facility to get help for her very sick baby, Tarunesh. The 2-month-old girl's skin was gray and she was struggling to breathe. She and her mother lived in a remote village in the Liben District of Ethiopia and had already walked three hours away from home to seek medical care, according to the Best Shot Foundation Web site.

A community health worker quickly diagnosed Tarunesh with severe pneumonia. He gave the infant a spoonful of antibiotics but she needed more. At the health care facility, she received a full course of medication and treatment and when the community health worker visited her home a short time later, Tarunesh was healthy and bouncing on her mother's lap.

Around the globe, pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children younger than 5, according to statistics on the World Pneumonia Day Web site. Every 15 seconds, a child dies from a disease that is both preventable and treatable at little cost says the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The latter reports that each day 5,500 young lives are lost because pneumonia, which kills more children worldwide than any other disease, including malaria, measles, and HIV/AIDS combined, is largely underestimated. Ninety-eight percent of the death toll occurs in developing countries like Ethiopia, India, Peru, Pakistan and the Philippines.

After reading a blog about pneumonia in the New York Times written by Nicholas Kristof, David Rubenstein, who previously organized the Save Darfur Coalition, founded the Best Shot Foundation on Mother's Day 2009.

A District-based nonprofit grass-roots movement that focuses global awareness and political engagement on childhood pneumonia, Best Shot Foundation, according to its Web site, is motivated by the belief that increased public commitment will drive increased health resource allocation.

This upcoming year, the Best Shot Foundation will organize dodgeball tournaments on college campuses across the country to raise awareness and funds for the fight against pneumonia, Mr. Rubenstein said. Each team will compete for a chance to advance to the national "Pnock Out Pneumonia" Championship. Each dollar raised will bring critical prevention and treatment services to children most in need.

Practical solutions such as inexpensive vaccines and antibiotics would save half of these young lives, advocates say. NFL Legend and Hall of Fame Quarterback Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers has signed on as Honorary League Commissioner of the Pnock Out Pneumonia Dodgeball Tournament.

"I was shocked to learn that pneumonia kills more kids around the world than any other disease, and terribly upset to learn that these children are dying when there are simple and inexpensive tools available now to keep them alive," he said.

On Nov. 2, Best Shot Foundation participated as a partner in the first World Pneumonia Day. A coalition of approximately 100 organizations sponsored 100 events in 30 countries on six continents. The World Pneumonia Day coalition was established by a health care coalition in April 2009 to bring focus on pneumonia as a public health issue and to prevent the millions of avoidable deaths from pneumonia that occur each year.

The coalition is grounded in a network of international government, nongovernmental and community-based organizations, research and academic institutions, foundations, and individuals that have united to bring much-needed attention to pneumonia among donors, policymakers, health care professionals, and the general public, organizers said.

Dr. Orin Levine, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, said pneumonia is a constant concern for families in developing countries where most lack access to basic care and few receive the same vaccines that children in the U.S. routinely are administered.

"More funding is urgently needed to provide vaccines, antibiotics and improve health systems so that this disease does not remain the leading killer of children for another year," Dr. Levine said.

Health care professionals are advocating that countries should develop plans for controlling pneumonia. The 2007 Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia outlined the key strategies for pneumonia control as: case management with integrated management of childhood illness at all levels; vaccination; improvement of nutrition/low birth weight; control of indoor air pollution; and the prevention and management of HIV infection.

Mr. Rubenstein remembered that Mr. Kristof wrote that: "Children with AIDS and malaria already have advocates, so anyone looking for a cause should grab pneumonia and run with it. Think of it not as a grim and depressing initiative, but as potentially a happy turnaround opportunity, for these kids' lives can be so breathtakingly easy to save."

Based on a story from the World Pnemonia Web site, had Angie, a Liberian nurse and mother who lost two young children to pneumonia gained and endured unimaginable hardship during Liberia's civil war, gained access to basic health care, her two children, Weedor and Joel, might be alive and healthy today.

Angie now works with the Liberian government to ensure that all children receive vaccinations against childhood diseases. Her surviving child, Cynthia, is now also a trained nurse and has a son.

Preventing children from contracting pneumonia in the first place with vaccines is key as often children, like Weedor and Joel, receive treatment too late.

Best Shot Foundation is dedicated to stopping the forgotten killer of 2 million children each year and is optimistic that awareness has increased greatly since the World Pneumonia Day events, Mr. Rubenstein said.

"The press has begun to cover pneumonia much more significantly since the World Pneumonia Day and hopefully the lives of children around the world will be saved," he said.

• Geraldine Washington is a writer living in the District.

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