Killing two bugs with one strategy

Nov 10, 2017


Laura Edison Kallen
Scientific Communications Officer, PATH

If pneumonia and diarrhea—the two biggest infectious killers of children worldwide—were personified as serial killers, I imagine that they would look very different. Pneumonia might be tall and spindly, with long, wispy fingers. Diarrhea, on the other hand, would be stocky, thick, and very ugly, a grisly force. Both are horrifying to imagine, but then again, so is the reality. These diseases take 1.5 million young lives every year.

But you know what makes them a truly diabolical duo? Pneumonia and diarrhea work together. They share the same risk factors, prey on the same communities, and when one strikes, the other can follow. The connection between these killers is reflected in the fact that World Pneumonia Day, November 12, is followed one week later by World Toilet Day on November 19.  

Thankfully, we have brilliant scientists, advocates, and caregivers all over the world—some might even call them superheroes—working together with a cross-cutting toolbox of proven interventions to take down the targets. While pneumonia and diarrhea are still on the loose, we’ve made tremendous progress in weakening these killers over the past few decades. And, very importantly, we’ve discovered that the killers have a key weakness: just as they work together, we can take them both out together!

Research shows that many of the best interventions to stop pneumonia and defeat diarrhea overlap. These include vaccines, clean water, sanitation systems, hygiene, good nutrition, and exclusive breastfeeding. When bundled in a comprehensive package, these interventions help protect and strengthen kids, prevent disease, and provide swift and appropriate treatment.

In our new Stop the Cycle of Diarrheal Disease: A State of the Field report, we’ve included a chapter on Integrated Solutions, which details these solutions and explains why fighting pneumonia and diarrhea together makes good sense.


Integrated solutions graphic


We showcase the World Health Organization’s integrated Global Action Plan for ending preventable deaths from pneumonia and diarrhea by 2025, which also focuses on the importance of integration.

Integration really works. With a coordinated, integrated approach to child health that corners these top killers, we could save more than a million lives every year, improve health for millions more, and change the world as we know it. We can already see the progress reflected in the disease burden data, but we also hear stories. Dr. Oluwalana, a pneumococcal vaccine researcher from The Gambia, shares her experience:

“The pneumococcal studies have brought a very integrated approach to research in The Gambia. We engage in health education around exclusive breastfeeding, good nutrition, hygiene, clean air, overcrowding, and addressing cultural taboos to improve health.”

I think picturing pneumonia and diarrhea as terrifying serial killers helps bring to light the urgency of their threat. They’ve been stalking and killing innocent children for far too long, but we’re on to them. We know how to take them down, and with the right strategy, we can do it in one fell swoop.


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Photo: PATH/Doune Porter