Breastfeeding, hygiene and vaccinations best way to prevent pneumonia

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At the pneumonia media dialogue (from left): Dr Aminah Bee Mohd Kassim, Dr Hishamshah Mohd Ibrahim, and Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail.

Pneumonia accounts for 16% of all deaths among children under five years. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2016 alone, the disease killed 880,000 children within this age group across the globe.

Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail, consultant paediatrician and Immunise4Life (IFL) technical committee chairman, said that in 2016, “pneumonia ranked as the third leading cause of death among the under-5s in Malaysia”.

He was speaking this week in Petaling Jaya at a media dialogue on “Combatting Childhood Pneumonia In Malaysia: What’s Next?”

Advising parents on how to protect their children, 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), to name a few.

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

Dr Hishamshah Mohd Ibrahim, head of paediatrics at Hospital Kuala Lumpur, remarked that children under two years 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.”

Dr Aminah Bee Mohd Kassim, public health physician and chief senior assistant director of the Family Health Division, Ministry of Health Malaysia, encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated against influenza, chicken pox and especially pneumococcal disease to optimise their protection against vaccine-preventable pneumonia.

All three experts applauded the government’s promise to provide free pneumococcal vaccination for children younger than two years under the National Immunisation Programme.

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