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by Kate O’Brien, MD

I’m a pediatrician, and an infectious disease pediatrician at that. We’re supposed to know what to do when a baby has pneumonia. But apparently that’s not always true. I’ve treated hundreds of such cases – but this time was different. When it’s your own infant, none of that experience matters.

Jack looked at me with what seemed like panic in his eyes. Coughing, crying, breathing fast, sleeping in fits and spurts. Babies aren’t supposed to breathe that fast. He lay beside me in bed. It was the day before Christmas and I just kept telling myself that we’d be better soon. Apparently that’s not true, either. We both had influenza, I’m sure of that. If you’ve had it you’ll know what I mean: I felt like hell, exhausted, muscle aches, and every time I coughed it felt like sandpaper scraping over my trachea.  But since I’m an infectious disease doc, of course we were vaccinated! Well, apparently that wasn’t true this year. I had every intention of getting that done weeks earlier, but life got in the way.

The middle of the night always makes things worse, or at least things seem worse. So we became “that family,” calling our neighbors in the middle of the night to care for our two-year old while we drove to the hospital with Jack. So many times I was that doctor we were about to meet in the emergency room, scratching my head wondering, “Why did they wait the whole day at home and decide to finally come in at 2 in the morning?” Well now I knew. Sometimes it doesn’t get better. Jack had pneumonia, which was visible on the chest x-ray, and needed antibiotics.

Every day, of every year, millions of children get pneumonia and struggle to breathe. More than a million of them don’t get the treatment they need and die. Every day of every year, something unimaginable to the mothers we are, happens to mothers we don’t know, over 90% of them living in poor countries in Africa and Asia. Their child dies from pneumonia, right in front of their eyes. It’s senseless. It’s inhuman. Vaccines against the biggest pneumonia-causing bacteria, Hib and pneumococcus, along with other simple strategies, can prevent these deaths.

So, this year on World Pneumonia Day, look at your kids and remember to get them vaccinated, remember to get yourself vaccinated and remember that not every mother is so lucky…yet. The GAVI Alliance is helping give those mothers the same opportunity for their kids, faster than ever before for any vaccine. At a time when the world seems to be more complicated than ever, this seems like a pretty sensible thing to do.

Dr. Kate O’Brien, MD, is a pediatrician, epidemiologist and Deputy Director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC), Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the winner of the 2011 US Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

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