Malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea, HIV and tuberculosis are preventable and treatable. But they are still killing children in large numbers.
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 approximately 30 per cent of global deaths among children under the age of 5 in 2019. 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 is the leading infectious cause of death among children under 5, killing approximately 700,000 children a year. In many parts of the world, a child dies from pneumonia every minute – 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 2022, UNICEF delivered 22.1 million antibiotic treatments to children under one year of age in 41 countries.
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 2019, diarrhoea killed approximately 480,000 young children across the globe, accounting for 9 per cent of all deaths among children under age 5.
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 2021, UNICEF distributed over 93 million zinc tablets and more than 30 million oral rehydration salt sachets worldwide. 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 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 2021, there were 247 million malaria cases globally that led to 619,000 deaths in total. Of these deaths, 77 per cent were children under 5 years of age.
Nearly every minute, 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, rapid diagnostic tests and antimalarials, 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 (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.