Pneumonia’s Cold Grip on Society: The Growing Threat to Public Health
By Alexandra Fuhs
Pneumonia is the biggest infectious killer of adults and children, taking the lives of over 2 million people in 2019. This World Pneumonia Day, learn about this deadly disease’s impact on us and how you can lower your risk of contracting it.
What is pneumonia?
Pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs in one or both lungs. The sacs fill with fluid or pus, leading to coughing and difficulty breathing. Additional symptoms include chest pain, fatigue, fever, chills, nausea, and shortness of breath. The disease can range in severity from mild, where you may feel like you have a cold, to life-threatening.
Pneumonia can be acquired from a variety of places. There are three general types: community-acquired, hospital-acquired, and aspiration. Community-acquired pneumonia comes from bacteria (or bacteria-like organisms), fungi, and viruses such as COVID-19. Hospital-acquired pneumonia, as the name suggests, is caught in a hospital setting. This form is particularly dangerous as the disease may already be resistant to antibiotics due to its origin. People on ventilators are at the highest risk from this form because of their already-weakened respiratory system. Aspiration pneumonia occurs from inflammation in the lungs when food, saliva, or liquids are breathed into the airways instead of swallowed and is most common in the elderly.
How has it affected our world?
The World Health Organization states that pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under five, and in the last ten years, has led to a 34% increase in the number of deaths in adults over 70. Due to the humanitarian crises taking place in various third-world countries, the effect of pneumonia — both the severity and number of cases — has greatly increased over the last couple of decades. Millions of people in second and third-world countries are at an increased risk of contracting pneumonia due to air pollution, overcrowding, and malnutrition. Vulnerable populations such as the homeless and drug users are also at high levels of risk.
Public ignorance is shockingly high for such a lethal disease. A misconception is that it only affects vulnerable people, such as those over 65 or newborns, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. People with community-acquired pneumonia (CAP) have an increased risk of cardiac events even after recovery, and a third will develop sepsis (which can be deadly very quickly). This unawareness of the severity of the condition is reflected in the low usage of the flu and pneumococcal vaccine; according to the CDC, the inoculation rate is 48.4%.
One of the biggest problems scientists and healthcare professionals are currently facing regarding the fight against pneumonia is antibiotic resistance. A significant percentage of pneumonia cases are caused by this. In fact, in cases with CAP, about 9% are caused by a variety of drug-resistant bacteria. This resistance has likely resulted from an overuse of antibiotics to treat even the most minor of conditions. The challenge faced by scientists is to give patients better antimicrobial therapy to fight against these superbugs and increase microbiological testing in at-risk patients.
One way to reduce the risk of contracting pneumonia is by practicing healthy habits. Avoid alcohol/drugs and areas with high levels of pollution, which can affect the function of your respiratory system. Try not to use antibiotics to treat viruses (antibiotics don’t work on them!) and common bacterial infections that can clear up by themselves, and don’t insist on an antibiotic if your doctor doesn’t recommend it. Finally, make sure to inform those around you on how they can protect themselves. This will dispel their misconception that they may not be at risk when in reality, pneumonia does not discriminate.
BioMedCentral. “Pneumonia is a major threat to public health - why don’t we acknowledge the fact?”, 12 November 2019.
NIH. “Defining Community-Acquired Pneumonia as a Public Health Threat: Arguments in Favor from Spanish Investigators”. Medical Sciences Basel, 25 January 2020.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Pneumonia”. Infectious Diseases.