Mandela’s Infection Could Be Pneumonia

South African officials confirm that his infection is persistent.

Gareth Davies/Getty Images
Gareth Davies/Getty Images

Tuesday, Dec. 11, 3:46 p.m. EST: Nelson Mandela’s lung infection could be pneumonia: South African officials say that Mandela’s lung infection is “recurring,” which is often a sign of pneumonia. ABC News reports:

As elderly people become more and more infirm, they have a decreased cough response and may aspirate oral secretions into their lungs, raising the risk of infections. And if someone is bedridden, their breaths become more shallow, raising the risk even more.

It may seem surprising that it took so long for Mandela’s diagnosis to be made public. However, it’s possible that it took this long to make a diagnosis.

Elderly people respond differently to pneumonia, meaning they might lack common symptoms like fever and cough, and instead show signs of confusion. The evaluation of change in physical or mental condition in someone of Mandela’s age is broad with much testing needed to make a diagnosis.

Pneumonia is a leading infectious cause of death in the elderly. But with proper treatment, many do recover.


Nelson Mandela, 94, whose recent illness has caused widespread concern in South Africa, where he was the first democratically elected president, is being treated for a lung infection and is “receiving appropriate treatment and responding to the treatment,” his spokesman said on Tuesday.

The anti-apartheid leader’s history of lung problems is intertwined with his legacy of activism. He first contracted tuberculosis in 1988, just after he was moved from the notorious Robben Island prison to another jail to ease the apartheid government’s efforts to negotiate with him about a possible release. “Madiba” — as he is called in his home country — fought off a similar infection in 2011. Military doctors, the Huffington Post reports, say he’s susceptible to such illness because of his age and the 27 years he spent behind bars.

His ongoing hospitalization has caused growing concern in South Africa, a nation of 50 million people that largely reveres Mandela for being the nation’s first democratically elected president who sought to bring the country together after centuries of racial division.