Childhood diseases

Malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV and tuberculosis are preventable and treatable. But they are still killing children in large numbers.

A mother holds her six-month-old daughter in a medical clinic as a health worker tests the baby for malaria.
UNICEF/UN0320581/Prinsloo

Major causes of death among children vary by age. Children under 5 are especially vulnerable to infectious diseases like malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV and tuberculosis. For older children, non-communicable diseases, injuries and conflict pose significant threats. 

Despite being entirely preventable and treatable, common infectious diseases are still killing young children in large numbers. Pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria were responsible for 29 per cent of global deaths among children under the age of 5 in 2016. Children in the world’s poorest regions are disproportionately affected, with infectious diseases particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa.  

These trends can be reversed. UNICEF works around the world to protect and prevent children from dying of disease. We support countries to strengthen primary health care systems – especially at the community level – and combat common infectious diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV and tuberculosis.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is the leading infectious cause of death among children under 5, killing approximately 900,000 children a year. In many parts of the world, a child dies from pneumonia every 35 seconds – even though the disease is entirely preventable and can be easily managed with antibiotics.

Pneumonia is a disease of inequality – one concentrated within the poorest populations around the globe.

Child deaths caused by pneumonia are strongly linked to undernutrition, lack of safe water and sanitation, indoor air pollution and inadequate access to health care. 

All of these factors are compounded by poverty, making pneumonia a disease of inequality – one concentrated within the poorest populations around the globe.

But simple protective, preventive and treatment solutions do exist: 

  • Protective measures like exclusive breastfeeding, adequate complementary feeding and vitamin A supplementation provide the foundation for keeping children healthy and free of disease. 
  • Preventive measures such as immunizations, reduced household air pollution, safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene help defend children from illness. 
  • Antibiotics are critical for treating pneumonia. In 2018, UNICEF provided antibiotic treatment to over 6.8 million children in 63 countries.

Diarrhoea

In recent years, significant progress has been made reducing child deaths from diarrhoea. But diarrhoea remains a leading killer of young children, particularly in humanitarian settings. 

In 2016, diarrhoea killed approximately 480,000 young children across the globe, accounting for 8 per cent of all deaths among children under age 5. Most deaths from diarrhoea occur among children below the age of 2 living in South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. 

These children could have been saved by simple effective interventions, such as oral rehydration salt and zinc: Approximately 70 to 90 per cent of deaths caused by acute watery diarrhoea can be prevented by oral rehydration salt, while zinc is estimated to decrease diarrhoea mortality by 11.5 per cent. Appropriate fluids, breastfeeding, continued feeding and selective use of antibiotics are also critical.

In 2018, UNICEF distributed over 103 million zinc tablets and more than 56 million oral rehydration salt sachets worldwide, including over 9 million sachets to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. UNICEF also leverages its resources and expertise in health; nutrition; education; behavioural communications; and water, sanitation and hygiene to support diarrhoea prevention and treatment.

Malaria

Malaria is the world’s third most deadly disease for young children between the ages of one month and 5 years, following pneumonia and diarrhoea. In 2017, approximately 266,000 children under the age of 5 died of the disease, accounting for 61 per cent of global malaria deaths.

Every two minutes, a child dies from malaria.

Eliminating malaria requires increased global investments – particularly in research and development.

Insecticide-treated mosquito nets are known to provide an effective defense against malaria, while swift diagnosis has proven essential for treatment. UNICEF works closely with partners to deliver key supplies, including mosquito nets and rapid diagnostic tests, to the children most at risk of infection. Our efforts ensure that care and treatment reach affected children where they are – whether at medical facilities or through appropriately trained and equipped community health workers.

Tuberculosis

A young boy smiles after being treated for malnutrition and tuberculosis.
UNICEF/UNI201755/Rich
Nyajime Guet, who was being treated for severe acute malnutrition and tuberculosis, smiles in Juba, South Sudan.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease that the world knows how to prevent and treat. Yet, over 600 children under the age of 15 die from it every day – nearly a quarter million each year. Most of these deaths occur among children under the age of 5.  

While countries have developed methods for TB prevention, surveillance, diagnosis and treatment in adults, children are still falling through the cracks. Among the one million children estimated to fall ill with tuberculosis each year, less than half are identified and registered by national programmes.  

Ninety-six per cent of the children who die from tuberculosis never accessed treatment.

Children are also left behind in funding efforts. While they represent about 10 per cent of global tuberculosis sufferers, they account for just 3 per cent of overall spending on research and development.

To meet this challenge, UNICEF works closely with Governments and partners to incorporate TB prevention and treatment in child health strategies. We support countries to improve primary health care at the community level, increase knowledge and awareness of tuberculosis, and strengthen systems that deliver TB services, such as screening, vaccination and treatment.

Resources

World Malaria Report, 2018

Learn more about why the global response to malaria has stalled, and what needs to be done to better combat a disease that claims more than 435,000 lives each year.


One Is Too Many: Ending Child Deaths from Pneumonia and Diarrhoea

This UNICEF report shows why and how ending preventable child deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea is within our grasp.


Ending Preventable Child Deaths from Pneumonia and Diarrhoea by 2025: The Integrated Global Action Plan for Pneumonia and Diarrhoea

This report from UNICEF and the World Health Organization proposes a cohesive approach to ending preventable pneumonia and diarrhoea deaths.


Roadmap Towards Ending Tuberculosis in Children and Adolescents

This report provides guidance to policymakers, health professionals and technical agencies involved in the implementation and support of tuberculosis programmes.


Change the Game: An Agenda for Action on Childhood Tuberculosis

This report highlights the actions stakeholders at various levels can take to invest in and coordinate a global response to tuberculosis.