There are two leading causes of pneumonia, which claims the highest number of lives of children under age 5, both globally and within developing countries like India, Pakistan and Kenya, according to new WHO data.
The findings could serve as a clarion call to developing country governments to invest in pneumonia prevention programs.
According to the studies, Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae type b [Hib] infections take the lives of an estimated 1.2 million children under age 5 each year.
Although safe and effective vaccines exist to provide protection against both diseases, use of Hib vaccine has only recently expanded to low-income countries and pneumococcal vaccine is not yet included in national immunization programs in the developing world.
In developing countries, children bear the highest risk for pneumonia and that is where most pneumonia-related child deaths occur.
"Our findings underscore the urgent need for prevention efforts throughout the developing world. The need for vaccination and improved treatment is particularly urgent in Africa and Asia, which together account for 95% of all pneumococcal deaths," Kate O'Brien, primary author of the pneumococcal study, said.
The ten countries with the greatest number and greatest proportion of global pneumococcal cases were in Asia and Africa, and taken together account for 66 percent of cases worldwide.
These countries include India, China, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and the Philippines.
"In areas of the world where access to quality care is limited, the use of pneumococcal vaccine is particularly necessary to limit disease and save lives. Implementing pneumococcal vaccine is critical if developing countries are to achieve United Nations Millennium Development Goal 4 for child mortality reduction," said Thomas Cherian, Coordinator of the WHO Expanded Programme on Immunization.
Through the GAVI Alliance, low income countries can access existing and future pneumococcal vaccines with only a small self-financed contribution of as little as 0.15 dollars per dose.
"If fully rolled out in GAVI-eligible countries, the pneumococcal vaccine could save the lives of more than 440,000 children by 2015. We encourage all developing countries to apply for this support as an important first step to saving children's lives," said Dr. Julian Lob-Levyt, CEO of the GAVI Alliance.
Just like pneumococcal disease, the greatest burden of Hib disease lies in Asia and Africa.
The ten countries with the highest estimated number of Hib deaths in 2000 include India, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Angola and Niger.
"The burden of Hib disease is substantial and almost entirely vaccine preventable. Expanded use of Hib vaccine could reduce the global burden of childhood pneumonia and meningitis and reduce child mortality," said James Watt at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The World Health Organization and the GAVI Alliance, which is supporting the Hib Initiative, have been working to expand supplies of Hib vaccine, reduce vaccine cost and assist countries with vaccine introduction.
The WHO data will be published in the upcoming edition of the Lancet.