Fighting For Breath: Pneumonia, World's Deadliest Disease Kills Two Children Every Minute

Gemma Parkin
When baby Jackson started struggling to breathe, his mum Maximilla searched frantically for help in Lodwar County Hospital, Northern Kenya.

When baby Jackson started struggling to breathe, his mum Maximilla searched frantically for help in Lodwar County Hospital, Northern Kenya. His ragged, wet lungs were clogged as pneumonia ravaged his body. Without oxygen, the biggest infectious killer of children might have claimed another victim in minutes. Had he not been resuscitated by a quick-thinking visitor called Jedidah, Jackson may have become another statistic.

Jedidah stepped in to help get oxygen into Jackson's lungs before the lack of it damaged his brain. A nurse by training, she knew this could happen imminently. She wasn't expecting to use her medical training that day. She just happened to be visiting the hospital as part of Save the Children's emergency response to a drought that is wreaking havoc across East Africa. But that day, there was only one over-worked nurse on the paediatrics ward, a dangerous but common occurrence caused by a then four-month long nurses' strike across Kenya. So Jedidah stepped in.

In recent months, 20,000 nurses have boycotted work in 47 counties across the country to protest against what they said was a breach of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) they signed with the government, in which they would receive a KSh12,000 (£90) allowance, no matter where they were based.

Over 50% of health facilities in drought-affected counties were closed because of the nurses' industrial action. National immunisation coverage rates dropped by almost a fifth and the number of women having their babies in clinics fell by a third. In some extreme cases, a doubling of maternal deaths was reported, because medical attention was simply not available to save lives when needed.

The nurses' strike has now been called off, just days after voting in Kenya's second general election. But the impact can still be felt. This was a humanitarian crisis within the national health system, which prompted Save the Children to start providing full-time salaried nurses to work in hospitals in the areas worst affected by the drought. These nurses were partially covering the gap in trained staff able to treat malnourished children - those whose chances of survival are often complicated by an inability to fight off diseases which prey on the weak and vulnerable.

More than 1,000 people have tested positive for malaria in Marsabit and other counties, just weeks after the disease killed more than 26 people in the region. The government and NGOs have managed to contain an outbreak of cholera, but the health workers' strike provided an opportunity for malaria to kill children, even if they do survive the hunger crisis which inevitably follows severe drought.

On top of the strike, the extended election campaigning period has delayed payments which are usually made by the national government to devolved counties to spend on their health care at a local level. In Lodwar, also currently suffering a spike in malaria, the county has a shortage of essential medicines to manage the condition: the last consignment was in July. The county's health system is not fully operational, with fuel shortages affecting the availability of ambulances and vaccines that cannot be delivered as there is no way to transport them safely at the required cold temperature.

This year has seen one of the worst public health crises in Kenya's history. The critical danger to children is compounded by the drought, which has decimated harvests since 2015. Kenya is suffering the worst drought in a generation, with four consecutive failed rains in the northern counties of Turkana, Wajir and Mandera.

The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance has doubled in just six months, from 2.7 million in February to 5.6 million in September. Rates of severe malnutrition are worse in some areas of Northern Kenya than those experienced during the region's 2011 famine, which killed more than a quarter of a million people. They died needlessly, mainly from preventable diseases which you are nine times more likely to catch if you are malnourished.

The provision of nurses to keep hospitals running in key areas of need offered a temporary solution. Nurses are back at work, for now, but the health system must remain a political and humanitarian priority because children cannot be allowed to die. Jackson survived and is doing well. But what about the others?