By Banke Sorinwa, a Nigerian mother and worker in financial services in Lagos.
It was our first day back to boarding school after the summer break. Some students shared hugs and narrated tales of the long holiday, while others were teary eyed because we were once again stuck in the four walls of school. It was also the time we looked forward to meeting the new students.
My friend Tonya noticed a new girl saying goodbye to her mom. We both also noticed that she was in crutches. That’s when Tonya told me a story about herself as a child.
Tonya said how fortunate she was that her parents discovered early on that she had polio. She was lucky in that she fully recovered. The girl Tonya and I saw on the first day of school was in her first year at secondary school and was on crutches till the end of the academic year.
We have written at length about the power of frontline health workers from documenting female frontline health workers in Ethiopia to discussing the importance of their work as they provide health care to those without access to health centers and hospitals. While we know that frontline health workers are pivotal to the overall health of a country, it is also important to note that many put their lives on the line in the name of global health.
Today news emerged from Nigeria that nine female polio health workers were killed by gunmen. There are only three countries where the polio is endemic – Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Female health workers in Pakistan were also targeted and killed in Pakistan in December and January.
The global health community is extremely close to eradicating polio globally through lifesaving vaccines, but a stubborn virus coupled with human opposition to erasing it from the planet continue to keep polio alive in Asia and Africa.
In listening to a talk last week in Atlanta given by Dr. Jacob Kumaresan, the Executive Director, WHO Office at the United Nations in New York, I learned a fascinating statistic about vaccine effectiveness.
In 1980 before the mass roll-out of vaccines there was one child death per second from deadly, yet preventable diseases like pneumonia, rotavirus, and measles. By 2000 the death rate was one death per minute. By 2010 the death rate was one death every four minutes. That shows progress, but the number of child deaths is still too high. By 2015 the United Nations has called for a reduction of child deaths by 2/3. Recent data by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund shows that MDG #4 (Child health) likely will not be reached, but that does not mean progress should slow.
One of the highest priorities in the global health community is to vaccinate children. In fact, it is one of the best global health buys to keep children alive.
“Immunizations have the power to save lives and transform lives,” said Kumaresan. “We can give the opportunity for a child to be healthy and grow without diseases.”
According to Kumaresan in 2010 109 million children were vaccinated with the DPT vaccine that fights against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus. 19.3 million children did not receive the vaccines and 70% of those children live in 10 developing countries.
The ultimate goal of global health agencies is to increase the vaccination rate to 90% worldwide in order eradicate these preventable diseases. In the developing world, however, there are challenges intrinsic to immunizing children. Many people live in informal settlements (slums) and in war-torn areas making vaccinations in this areas difficult.
Since 2010 the GAVI Alliance has supported the immunization of 3.6 million children with the pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumonia is the leading cause of death for children under the age of five. GAVI’s mission is to save children’s lives in poor countries through immunization.
The Measles & Rubella Initiative
Five key partners make up the Measles Rubella Initiative including the American Red Cross, United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Children’s Fund, United Nations Foundation and World Health Organization. These partners have set a strategic plan to reduce measles and rubella to zero by 2020 in at least five WHO regions. According to WHO the plan will be implemented through:
high vaccination coverage;
monitoring spread of disease using laboratory-backed surveillance;
outbreak preparedness and response and measles case management;
communication and community engagement; and
research and development.
The goal is within reach. In fact sub-Saharan Africa made saw a significant 85% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2010 due to vaccinations.
“It’s a moral imperative in today’s world,” said Kumeresan. “Every child should be reached. We need to make vaccines accessible and affordable to the people who need it.”
Did you know 1.7 million children in developing nations will die this year because they don’t have access to life-saving vaccines? How can this be changed, you ask? Lives can be saved by simply administering vaccines to children who are most vulnerable to life-threatening diseases like malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, and polio. It’s that easy.
I am happy to announce that we have partnered with Shot at Life, a United Nations Foundation campaign that educates, connects and empowers Americans to champion vaccines as one of the most cost-effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries. Read an interview with Peg Willingham, Shot at Life’s Executive Director.
A national call to action for this global cause, the campaign rallies the American public, members of Congress, and civil society partners around the fact that together, we can save a child’s life every 20 seconds by expanding access to vaccines. By encouraging Americans to learn about, advocate for, and donate vaccines, the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign will decrease vaccine-preventable childhood deaths and give children a shot at a healthy life. To learn more, go toShotatLife.org.
In many developing nations children are born with a distinct disadvantage: the risk of dying from pneumonia or diarrhea, the two leading causes of death for children in the third world. If these children are fortunate enough to escape the grip of those two infectious diseases they may come down with malaria or measles, or be crippled by polio.
Young lives teeter between life and death every day in the poorest countries in the world. In fact, 1.7 million children will die this year because they have succumbed to one of the aforementioned diseases. With life-saving vaccines, however, the outcome for hundreds of thousands of poor children in developing nations can be changed. They will live.
The United Nation Foundation’s new program, Shot at Life*, works to combat the problem of children dying senselessly from diseases that can be thwarted through simple vaccines. With a generous donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners such as UNICEF and GAVI Alliance, Shot at Life encourages Americans to champion vaccines as an effective, verified, and cost-effective way to save the lives of children in developing countries.
Recently a team from Shot at Life including its Executive Director, Peg Willingham, as well as a team of congressional staffers traveled to Honduras to see the rate of childhood vaccinations and the outcomes from vaccinating 99 percent of its children.
“We selected Honduras because we wanted to show a success story to congressional staffers and the media,” said Willingham. “We wanted to show them here are the people you are helping.”
“Honduras was one of the earliest countries to receive the new vaccines for pneumonia and diarrhea,” said Willingham. Since then GAVI Alliance, the Pan American Health Organization, the Honduras government including health workers, teachers, and the police as well as community volunteers have worked in tandem to ensure the successful inoculation rate of its children. This levels the playing field for children who could die from preventable disease and drastically reduces child mortality.
Willingham also cited Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world, because of its willingness and desire to vaccinate its children to help severely reduce measles cases. Even though Mozambique only has one major highway that traverses its country and has recently emerged from a devastating civil war, the Mozambique government had the political will to vaccinate its children. “Over the course of five days 3.6 million children in Mozambique were vaccinated,” recalled Willingham who was in the southeastern African country during their massive vaccination campaign. Such a large undertaking took nine months to plan and its success relied on a top-down model of everyone working together from the government and its partners to the media to health workers, church groups and local volunteers. Due to the widespread and succinct nationwide messaging some mothers walked 15 miles in order to ensure their children were vaccinated.
Shot at Life is currently building a national network of supporters who believe every child deserves the right to life by receiving life-saving vaccines. Since its soft launch in September 2011 over 74,000 people have already joined in support. Shot at Life is now working to engage even more people through social media and mothers’ and parents’ groups around the country to spread the word about their global efforts to keep children alive.
On April 26 during National Immunization Week, Shot at Life will officially launch in Atlanta at the world-renowned Georgia Aquarium. In preparation for their launch Shot at Life has brought in a team of digital moms to their Washington, DC offices today for a summit to gear up for a nationwide roll-out of volunteers to spread the word about vaccine awareness.