Championing the fight against pneumonia

Dr Anjana Kannankara

On World Pneumonia Day on November 12, the Forum of International Respiratory Societies (FIRS) calls for urgent and expedited progress to end the preventable burden of pneumonia. This is a critical moment to bring together the health, air quality and climate community to tackle the biggest infectious killer on the planet.


Boosting efforts to fight pneumonia could avert nearly 9 million child deaths from pneumonia and other major diseases by 2030. Established by the ‘Stop Pneumonia: Every Breath Counts’, initiative in 2009 to raise awareness and advocate for global action, The World Pneumonia Day this year will be held during COP 26 — the UN Climate Change Conference.

Pneumonia is the single biggest infectious killer of adults and children — claiming the lives of 2.5 million in 2019, including 672,000 children. Deaths from Covid-19 will add 2 million more in 2020, bringing the total to more than 4 million. No other infection causes anywhere near this burden of death.

Understanding pneumonia

Pneumonia is a lung infection that specifically inflames the lungs, and the sacs may fill up with fluid or pus. In most cases, pneumonia is temporary and treatable. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, about 50,000 people die each year from the condition.

While some people are at higher risk than others, anyone can get pneumonia. Understanding the cause of pneumonia is important because pneumonia treatment depends on its cause. Pneumonia can be very serious and can cause death. Complications from pneumonia include respiratory failure, sepsis and lung abscess and are more likely to affect older adults, young children, those with a weakened immune system and people with other medical problems.


Symptoms of this lung infection can be very mild to life-threatening. They include:

  • Cough, which may produce mucus
  • Fever, sweating, and shaking chills
  • Shortness of breath/rapid, shallow breathing
  • Chest pain that worsens when you breathe deeply
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue/low energy
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Confusion, especially in older people

Unless it is a severe case, pneumonia is typically treated with prescribed medications, rest, plenty of fluid intake to loosen secretions, and avoiding smoke and other lung irritants.

Major risk factors

  • Exposure to indoor or outdoor air pollution
  • Poor nutrition
  • Lack of vaccination
  • Absence of good health habits

Myths about pneumonia and the truth

  1. Myth: Pneumonia is just a bad cold.

Truth: The common cold is caused by a virus and typically does not require urgent medical care. In fact, self-care may be enough. Pneumonia is a bacterial infection in the lungs, which is more serious and requires treatment.

  1. Myth: You can get pneumonia if you don’t wear a coat outside when it’s cold.

Truth: Pneumonia is caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi.

  1. Myth: Standing near a drafty window or going out with wet hair can give you pneumonia.

Truth: When you are cold, your body may possibly be less able to fight off infection and other illnesses, but the weather is not a direct cause of pneumonia.

  1. Myth: Pneumonia is an infection within one person and not contagious.

Truth: One can catch pneumonia sometimes, but it depends on what kind of pneumonia it is. Bacterial and viral infections can be spread from person to person, but fungal pneumonia cannot.

  1. Myth: Pneumonia only affects older individuals.

Truth: Pneumonia can affect people of any age. However, older age is a significant risk factor, which is why people over the age of 65 are considered to be at higher risk. The lung infection may also be more serious in seniors because the immune system may be less effective. Infants and young children also are at high risk of getting pneumonia.

  1. Myth: If a person is not sick, he is not a carrier.

Truth: Though carrying the disease often leads to illness, just like other infections, you could be a carrier without showing any symptoms. The best way to prevent spreading any disease through the winter months is by keeping your hands clean, and covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.

Preventing the burden of illness

To end the preventable burden of pneumonia, we must work together to:

  • Raise awareness about pneumonia, the leading killer of young children.
  • Strengthen, accelerate and sustain interventions to prevent and treat pneumonia.
  • Raise awareness about pneumonia, the leading killer of young children.
  • Strengthen, accelerate and sustain interventions to prevent and treat pneumonia.
  • Focus on equitable access to, and delivery of, comprehensive pneumonia prevention and control programmes.
  • Design strategies to reach vulnerable populations to improve their access to available interventions

Reducing chances of infection

The flu is a common cause of pneumonia, so preventing the flu is a good way to reduce the risk of pneumonia. In addition, those at risk can get vaccinated against pneumococcal pneumonia. If feeling unwell, never assume that it’s just the common cold or a flu. One should consult a doctor to confirm the cause of illness without delay. If left untreated, pneumonia could worsen and lead to various other health issues.

Avoiding exposure to polluted air, both indoors abs outdoors, and other lung irritants like smoke, washing hands, following a healthy diet, getting adequate rest, regular exercise and abstinence from smoking are all habits that can help individuals from becoming sick from bacteria, viruses and other causes of respiratory illnesses. Good health habits can also promote fast recovery of a sick person and also prevent the chances of infection in future.

(The author is the chairperson at CSA, Director at TGL, Senior Director at FWO, Edotor The Intl Journal)

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