Back in the 1960s in the United States, the oral polio vaccine was introduced and used broadly. OPV drops, placed on sugar cubes, were commonly distributed at large community events. A little bit of sugar did make the medicine go down — in the most delightful way — and protected us from a deadly and crippling disease. We were among the many children fortunate enough to receive the OPV, but some were not.
Barbara remembers when she was a young child, a neighborhood boy had crashed his bike on the sidewalk. A few days later the boy was dead. He died not because of the bike accident, but because of polio. One of six children in his family, he was somehow overlooked when his siblings were vaccinated.
Barbara was too young to sense the relief her mother must have felt, knowing that her own children had been immunized against this dreaded disease.
Betsy remembers standing in a long line at her elementary school, her mother telling her about the new vaccine for polio. Her mother said that it would not hurt, and the sugar cube covered in bright red liquid looked very tempting.
In the United States, a lot has been taken for granted because we have been protected for so long. Yet in other parts of the world where diseases are rampant, every year 6.3 million children under the age of 5 die (approximately 17,000 daily) many from vaccine-preventable disease. That’s inexcusable in today’s world.
At present, with the world’s attention focused understandably on the threat from Ebola, it is important to remind ourselves that we also must focus on all disease prevention and containment. Sadly, with funding efforts targeting the Ebola crisis, we are now seeing a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases. It is essential that attention to childhood diseases and other common communicable maladies such as yellow fever, measles, meningitis, rotavirus and pneumococcal, all preventable by vaccine, remains front and center.
Fortunately, prevention and implementation are happening on a global scale. Just recently, Tanzania began work to protect 21 million children against measles and rubella as part of a new nationwide immunization campaign supported by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Thanks to Gavi, this kind of work is happening in countries all around the world, from Haiti to Vietnam.
Since 2000, Gavi has worked with impoverished countries, donor nations, and the private sector to bring global immunization rates to an all-time high. Gavi provides support that improves health sector planning, and strengthens national systems and infrastructure. Gavi aims to focus its support on the world’s poorest countries.
In January, Gavi will be seeking $7.5 billion from the international community in order to vaccinate 300 million more children by 2020, thereby saving more than 5 million lives. That investment seems small when you consider the World Bank predicts the economic impact of Ebola could reach $32.6 billion by the end of this year.
The United States must do its part by pledging to contribute $1 billion over four years to this vital effort. Our nation needs to show its leadership by supporting Gavi.
President Obama has made a personal commitment to help end preventable child deaths, and we urge all members of Congress to sign onto the non-partisan House Resolution 688 in support of Gavi funding. All children should all be counted among the lucky ones; all kids deserve a healthy start in life.
Barbara Mihm is a registered nurse with bachelor degrees in nursing from Barry University and healthcare administration from Florida International University. Betsy Suero Skipp is a social-change advocate and RESULTS Global Team Leader/Miami.