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Child health

The best ways to protect children from pneumonia and diarrhoea

2020 Available in English, Portuguese, French and Spanish

Edouard enjoys some nutritious porridge in Burundi. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

Edouard enjoys some nutritious porridge in Burundi. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

Bina (right) and a friend wash their hands at their school in Nepal. Photo: Tom Price/Tearfund

From: Communicable diseases – Footsteps 112

How to reduce the spread and impact of diseases that pass from person to person

Despite being preventable and treatable, common communicable diseases are still responsible for the deaths of large numbers of young children each year, particularly in the world’s poorest regions. According to the World Health Organization, pneumonia, diarrhoea and malaria were responsible for 29 per cent of global deaths among children under the age of five in 2018.


Pneumonia is a dangerous infection that affects the lungs. It may be caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. When someone has pneumonia, their lungs become congested with fluid which makes breathing difficult and painful. They may also develop a cough and a high temperature. If caught soon enough the disease can usually be effectively treated with antibiotics.

Pneumonia is the leading infectious cause of death among children under five. Many of these deaths are linked to undernutrition, poor sanitation, inadequate access to health care and indoor air pollution caused by stoves and people smoking.

The best ways to protect children from pneumonia include:

  • frequent handwashing with soap
  • keeping homes free of smoke
  • early and exclusive breastfeeding
  • good nutrition after weaning
  • vaccination, particularly against pneumococcal infections and measles
  • vitamin A supplementation.

Breast is best 

Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria. Babies who receive only breast milk for the first six months, and who continue to have breast milk for up to two years, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses and bouts of diarrhoea.


Between 70 and 90 per cent of child deaths caused by severe watery diarrhoea can be prevented by the use of oral rehydration solution. Zinc supplements are also helpful and selective use of antibiotics may be recommended in certain circumstances.

The best ways to protect children from diarrhoea include:

  • the use of safe water for drinking and washing (if in doubt, boil water for two minutes before drinking)
  • community-wide sanitation
  • frequent handwashing with soap
  • early and exclusive breastfeeding
  • vaccination against common infectious diseases such as measles and rotavirus.

Make your own oral rehydration solution

Add six level teaspoons of sugar and half a level teaspoon of salt to one litre (five cups) of safe drinking water. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Encourage the person with diarrhoea to drink as much of the solution as they can to help prevent dehydration. If they are vomiting, they should take small sips at regular intervals.

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Antibiotic resistance

Since their discovery, antibiotics have saved millions of lives. However, widespread misuse of the drugs means that bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to them. This is making it harder to treat the diseases caused by these bacteria.

Preventing infections from occurring reduces the need for antibiotics and slows the development of antibiotic resistance. Help prevent infections by vaccinating children against common infectious diseases and washing your hands regularly with soap.

In addition:

  • Only take antibiotics that have been prescribed to you by a health professional. Follow the instructions and do not stop taking them until you have finished the course of treatment (even if you begin to feel better).
  • Never share antibiotics.
  • Do not buy antibiotics from unregulated sources such as street vendors, the black market or online.

Antibiotics do not treat viral infections such as colds and flu. Taking antibiotics when they are not needed leads to antibiotic resistance.

Further reading

Children for Health is dedicated to developing children as communicators of essential health messages in their families an communities. Download health messages, books, posters and smart phone/tablet resources free of charge in multiple languages.

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