In January I joined a mission to Liberia to observe vaccination programs supported by GAVI – the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. There are few places on earth where children have it tougher. One in five will not make it to their fifth birthday, one in three will not go to school, and most will not know what it is like to live with electricity, clean water and adequate food. To make things worse, a decade of civil war has left many children scarred, traumatized and orphaned.
In 1990 measles killed almost 4 million children. Today, thanks to the measles vaccine, fewer than 250,000 children die – still 250,000 too many – but a dramatic improvement.
The tragedy is that Liberian children are like so many others in poor countries. We know the reasons why these children die young. The two biggest killers are pneumonia and diarrhea, with pneumonia killing around 2 million children worldwide and diarrhea almost as many, every year. Until very recently we have not had vaccines that targeted two of the major causes of death from pneumonia and diarrhea – diseases caused by pneumococcal bacteria (causing as many as 1 million deaths) and rotavirus (claiming around 500,000 lives). This is one of the major reasons why child mortality rates have stayed so unacceptably high.
But now we do. Since 2000, pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines have reduced the number of child deaths and hospitalizations here in America. Imagine their impact if children in the poorest countries got these vaccines. Estimates suggest that we would be able to save as many as 5 million children over the next twenty years. Vaccines have produced results on this scale before. In 1990 measles killed 4 million children. Today, thanks to the vaccine, fewer than 250,000 children die – still 250,000 too many – but a dramatic improvement.
I believe that our generation has a unique opportunity to achieve gains of the same magnitude with the introduction of these two vaccines. If we can get them to the poorest children, we will be able to say to our grown children that when they were young millions of children used to die from pneumonia and diarrhea, but not anymore. We have the vaccine technology to do it and we have an alliance, GAVI, with a proven track record in delivering vaccines to the poorest nations – from diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus vaccine to vaccines for measles, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and yellow fever. Bill Gates has said that, ‘Nothing on the planet saves children’s lives more effectively and inexpensively than vaccines’, naming GAVI one of five “transformers” -- organizations making a difference at a global scale.
We can all give it our best shot. It doesn’t cost much to vaccinate a child against pneumococcal disease. The price will be around $3.50 per dose. That means vaccinating a family of four children would cost $14 and a small village around $2000. And for those bold enough to envisage vaccinating a small country with a population of a million children, we are talking around $14 million. And thanks to Harvard economists like David Bloom and David Canning we know that vaccines are an investment in development. Vaccines keep children healthy and healthy children stay at school and study harder. Families have fewer children when their chance of survival increases and a 10 year gain in life expectancy improves growth rates by up to 1 percentage point.
This year, thanks to support from GAVI, several governments and the Gates Foundation, pneumococcal vaccine will be introduced in Rwanda and The Gambia and rotavirus vaccine will be rolled out in Bolivia, Guyana, Honduras and Nicaragua. I hope that these are the first steps in what will become the next big chapter in vaccination’s extraordinary success story. Earlier generations stepped up to the plate to eradicate smallpox and to eradicate polio here in the United States. Now we have an unprecedented opportunity to make a difference in the lives of millions of children by investing in the pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines.