Times were tough in the United States in 1938. Unemployment was at 19 percent as the country crawled out of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt decided it was time to launch a multimillion dollar campaign to confront the devastating polio epidemics that were striking the country.
Little was known about polio when FDR created the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis. To increase funding for polio research, the foundation launched the March of Dimes fundraising campaign, which asked the public to send their dimes to the White House. During the first four months, the White House received more than two million dimes! By 1953, the annual appeals raised more than $50 million. The March of Dimes was, in essence, the first public-private partnership for vaccine development—and it was a success.
One March of Dimes grantee, Jonas Salk, created a vaccine that was tested in a massive field trial involving 1.8 million schoolchildren who were known as “polio pioneers.” The vaccine was licensed for use on April 12, 1955. We sometimes forget the jubilation that greeted the news. As sports writer Frank DeFord described that day:
“Schoolchildren and factory workers got the word over public address systems. Office workers heard it while huddling around radios...At our desks, we cheered...Outside we could hear car horns honking and church bells chiming in celebration.”
Fast forward to 1982. The vast majority of the world’s poorest children still hadn’t received the polio vaccine or other available vaccines. In the United States, unemployment was at 11 percent and inflation was high. Still, UNICEF’s visionary executive director, Jim Grant, decided the time had come to launch immunization campaigns around the world as part of his Child Survival Revolution.
Within a few years, Congress increased funding for child survival efforts to unprecedented levels, which helped boost worldwide immunization rates for the most common vaccines from close to 20 percent to 80 percent in just ten years. In villages and towns in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, parents celebrated the miracle of being able to protect their children from diseases that had threatened their lives for so long.
Now, as we enter what Bill and Melinda Gates have dubbed the Decade of Vaccines, mothers are again waiting in long lines to protect their children from some of the leading killers of those under five years old—pneumococcal disease, meningitis A, and rotavirus (the most deadly cause of diarrhea).
This new generation of vaccines is now available largely thanks to the GAVI Alliance—a public-private partnership that was created to speed up the introduction of lifesaving vaccines in developing countries. Over the past decade, GAVI has helped prevent the deaths of more than five million children through routine immunization. Many more children have been protected against debilitating illness and disability.
However, the pneumococcal, meningitis A, and rotavirus vaccines are still only available in a fraction of the countries where they are needed. Much remains to be done, then, to achieve the vision of the Decade of Vaccines. It will require new and improved vaccines, a reliable supply of affordable vaccines, equitable delivery of immunization services, and, as in decades past, broad public demand and political commitment—including resources.
The GAVI Alliance estimates that it can save another four million lives over the next five years, if it has the funding necessary to scale up immunization programs. When GAVI donors meet on June 13 to make their financing pledges, some will point to the weak economy and caution against the Alliance’s bold goal. They would do well to remember that times were at least as tough when FDR and Jim Grant launched their groundbreaking efforts.
As in 1938 and 1982, now is the right time to combine the collaborative spirit of FDR and the audacity of UNICEF’s Jim Grant with our own hard work, courage, and determination to extend the full benefits of immunization to all people, regardless of where they live. Only a failure of imagination stands in the way.
Decade of Vaccines, Polio, March of Dimes, Jonas Salk, Jim Grant, UNICEF, Child Health, GAVI Alliance, Pneumonia, Rotavirus, Meningitis