ALTHOUGH medical experts and the generality of Nigerians are by now accustomed to bad news from the country’s beleaguered health sector, reports last week by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) showing that Nigeria is the largest contributor to global pneumonia deaths still came as a profound shock to many.
While the global picture itself is grim(800,000 children under the age of five, or one child every 39 seconds, died of pneumonia worldwide in 2018), that Nigerian children made up the highest number of mortalities, with an estimated 162,000 deaths, or 443 deaths per day, is hard to stomach. Nor is the sheer scandal of those numbers mitigated by the report’s additional disclosure that Nigeria and four other countries (India, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and Ethiopia) collectively accounted for more than half of total child deaths from pneumonia.
For all its doom and gloom, the UNICEF analysis does offer some rays of hope, especially in terms of its breakdown of the epidemiology of the deadly disease. For instance, there is a reminder that, for all its lethality, pneumonia is, in fact, a preventable disease; that the biggest risk factors in Nigeria are “malnutrition, indoor pollution from use of solid fuels, and outdoor air pollution”; that “Children with immune systems weakened by other infections like HIV… and those living in areas with high levels of air pollution and unsafe water are at far greater risk; and lastly, and on a sanguine note, that “The disease can be prevented with vaccines, and easily treated with low-cost antibiotics if properly diagnosed.”
If to take the lattermost point, pneumonia is preventable with vaccines and easily treated with low-cost antibiotics, why is the number of Nigerian child deaths from it so alarmingly high? The answer to this question goes to the very jugular of many of the issues that have now dogged the Nigerian health sector for decades. As University of Ibadan pharmaceutical microbiologist, Professor Iruka Okeke, one of the world’s leading experts on the subject, brilliantly documented in her book, Divining Without Seeds: The Case for Strengthening Laboratory Medicine in Africa, such nagging issues include diagnostic insufficiency, the dire state of the country’s medical laboratories, prevalence of fake drugs, lingering suspicion of vaccines and hostility towards vaccine experts, and last but not least, the haemorrhaging of the finest minds from the country’s medical sector.
The UNICEF report concludes with a call on “Governments in the worst affected countries to develop and implement Pneumonia Control Strategies to reduce child pneumonia; and to improve access to primary health care as part of a wider strategy for universal health coverage.”In endorsing this call, we also urge authorities at federal, state and local levels to accord health infrastructure its deserved pride of place. For far too long, and for the Federal Government especially, boastful rhetoric on planned improvements in the health sector has not been matched by corresponding action or investment. It is totally unconscionable for a country as blessed as Nigeria to lose so many children to a preventable disease. The time for action is now.