A campaign to end child pneumonia by reaching mothers and health workers with life-saving information


Imagine explaining to a concerned mother of an ill child how to check for the signs of pneumonia. Fever, chills, dehydration, fatigue. Sounds like a flu. What about chest in-drawing, shallow breaths, and shortness of breath. Getting warmer, but also could be signs for a cough and cold.

Public health communicators across the globe have spent careers searching for easy and simple ways to communicate complex health information to diverse audiences. When done correctly, this information can be the catalyst for preventing a life-threatening disease, like HIV, or instilling healthy behaviors, like breastfeeding, or alerting the need for emergency care before it is too late, like in the case of child pneumonia.

Communicators who do this well know that communications is not a one-way street. To truly move the needle in public health behavior change, we must understand that health messages are not directives, and those conveyed as such will be met with indifference. Health communications must be anchored in a deep understanding of the target audience to truly capture their hearts and minds.

Yet, how we balance the need to develop targeted, strategic, and creative health messages with the reality that public health communicators often work across diverse geographies and with extremely limited budgets is a critical challenge.

This was the question on our minds two years ago, when together with the United Nations, we embarked on a first-of-its kind communications campaign to prevent child deaths caused by pneumonia, the number one infectious killer of children under the age of five worldwide.

Our challenge was to develop a campaign that could influence both mothers and health workers across culturally diverse countries in Asia and Africa to adopt life-saving behaviors to prevent child deaths from pneumonia. For mothers, this means adopting proper water and sanitation practices, cleaner cooking techniques, and exclusive breastfeeding, while for health workers, knowing how to count breaths to identify a sick child and prescribing the antibiotic amoxicillin are most critical.  

Members of the Diarrhea & Pneumonia Working Group, including Clinton Health Access Initiative Inc., McCann Global Health, USAID, UNICEF, and Abt Associates, have worked as a unified team to develop a new communications campaign with the goal of influencing mothers and health workers to adopt life-saving behavior to prevent child deaths from pneumonia.

The campaign is guided by the core caregiver strategy of Listen, See, Go:

Listen to the breathing
See the signs of pneumonia
Go to get help.

Recognizing that caregivers in the most affected communities may have a limited understanding about the signs and symptoms of pneumonia, we had to ensure that the messaging and materials would be simple, clear, relevant, and attention-grabbing.

To do this, the team tested every graphic and every message with representatives of the target audience. We learned what was working to demonstrate seemingly obtuse visuals like “chest in-drawing” (the special movement a very sick child’s chest makes while struggling to breathe), to what would be most interesting and relevant to a mother (e.g. a story about an ill child restored to health upon receiving professional and compassionate care).

When it came to localization, the team also needed to go above and beyond by ensuring that not only would each campaign be freely available on a website, but also it would come equipped with user guidelines and recommendations for any public health organization to use.  These materials are now being integrated in health programs throughout Uganda and Nigeria, where health workers are learning about pneumonia diagnostics and treatment, and mothers are learning about how to prevent pneumonia and take immediate steps to access treatment

A drastic decrease in child pneumonia deaths will take more than just the right communications. It will take innovations from the private sector, health systems strengthening by governments, advocacy from civil society, and responsiveness and understanding on the part of caregivers and health workers alike. But creative communications is one essential piece to population-level health that starts with the individual. As marketing expert Seth Godin said, “Our job is to connect to people, to interact with them in a way that leaves them better than we found them, more able to get where they’d like to go.” 

We hope we can do just that with this communications campaign to prevent child deaths from pneumonia. The materials can be downloaded here.

Learn more about how your organization can get started with Every Breath Counts.