With cold and flu season upon us, everyone is sharing tips about how to keep our kids and ourselves healthy. Flu shots, hand washing, good nutrition and lots of sleep all strengthen immune systems and help families fight off many — though certainly not all — of the circulating germs. 

Carolyn Miles, President & Chief Executive Officer of Save the Children, says parents in every corner of the world face this same battle, but in developing countries where health care is limited, these common illnesses can pose a serious threat to the health — and even survival — of children.

Why do we need to prioritize tackling common illnesses?

As a mother of three children, this issue is one I can relate to. I remember vividly when my children, who were usually quite healthy, would get fevers or have stomach bugs. While I had access to medical care and the illness usually passed quickly, there was still a feeling of helplessness. I would have done anything to help them feel better. It is heartbreaking to know there are millions of parents whose children experience the same illnesses as my children, but because of where they live, are not able to get their children the care and medicine they need. 

So illnesses that are routine and easily treated in the United States can have serious consequences elsewhere?

That’s right. Children everywhere get the same illnesses — coughs, colds and stomach bugs. But when common, seemingly simple illnesses go untreated, the consequences can be devastating. In fact, nearly 1 million young lives are lost each year when an untreated illness progresses to severe pneumonia. 

Pneumonia is a significant cause of death for children. Isn’t that normally an illness of older people?

More children lose their lives to pneumonia than any other infection. According to the World Health Organization, up to 70 percent of child pneumonia deaths could be prevented with amoxicillin, an antibiotic that costs only 50 cents per course of treatment. Sadly, this medicine is not widely available or provided in many countries. As a result, children with pneumonia either receive no treatment, or they are treated with the wrong antibiotic, which can be ineffective and increase antimicrobial resistance. 

While antibiotics can be effective, is there a risk in increasing access to them? Aren’t we trying to reduce antibiotic use?

We are definitely working to reduce unneeded use of antibiotics. However, when children have severe infections, access to antibiotics is necessary and life-saving. While in many countries there is an overuse of antibiotics that risks increasing resistance and lessening their effectiveness, there are also countries where lives are lost because antibiotics are simply not available.

We can reduce antibiotic exposure and prevent illness by increasing access to immunization. When rotavirus, Hemophilus type B and pneumococcal vaccines were introduced in the United States years ago, emergency room visits and hospitalizations from severe disease plummeted. We are seeing equally dramatic results in countries where children are gaining access to these needed vaccines. As we continue to reach more children with these vaccines, we’ll be able to prevent children from being sick in the first place. As the saying goes: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.