This week, I’m reminded of a woman in Mali named Tiemany Diarra, who lost her only two daughters, Clarice and Kalifa, to pneumonia in adjacent hospital beds twelve months apart. This scenario is unimaginable for most of us with children in the United States. Yet every year, 7.6 million children in the world’s poorest countries will die before reaching their fifth birthdays.
Tiemany Diarra holds vigil over her daughter Kalifa, who is fighting for her life against pneumococcal pneumonia and meningitis. Ultimately, Kalifa lost her fight with the disease. (Photo by Adrian Brooks)
On Thursday, hundreds of global leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector will descend on Washington, DC for USAID’s Child Survival: Call to Action summit. The goal of this summit? Forever ending preventable child deaths.
There’s reason to believe this could happen, even with a daunting 7.6 million child deaths a year. Over the last 50 years, child mortality has fallen 70%. Simple, cost-effective interventions to prevent and treat the biggest infectious killers of children exist. Sadly, these interventions are not reaching millions of children like Clarice and Kalifa.
At the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at Johns Hopkins University, we estimate that delivering childhood immunization coverage for vaccines against pneumonia, meningitis, and diarrhea would prevent 3.7 million deaths and over 100 million cases of illness between 2011 and 2020. If we reach the recommended 90% immunization coverage level sooner than anticipated, even more illness and death could be avoided.
But vaccines don’t just save lives, they save money. Rolling out these three crucial vaccines between 2011 and 2020 would save an astounding $63 billion in averted treatment costs and productivity losses for the world’s 73 poorest countries.
When children don’t get sick – families and governments don’t spend limited income on medicines and households do better because mothers and fathers work or farm instead of staying home with a sick child. Most impactful of all, children grow up free from disability and death, becoming healthier, more productive contributors to society.
Recently, momentum among global leaders has been building to prioritize child survival. In May, the World Health Assembly endorsed the Global Vaccine Action Plan – a vision and roadmap to reach all children, no matter where they live, with the vaccines they need. And just a year ago, public and private donors pledged a generous $4.3 billion to the GAVI Alliance.
But even this is not enough to achieve the goals of the Decade of Vaccines. Governments, donors, and the private sector must recognize that health interventions, vaccines in particular, are a tremendous investment, one that will yield economic benefits far beyond their cost.
To realize these economic benefits here is what must happen:
- International donors must fully fund their financial commitments to GAVI. Investing partially would abandon the hardest to reach communities and children, hindering their potential growth and possibly widening inequality.
- National governments must increase their domestic financing for vaccines and immunization systems. Domestic government financing is the most sustainable, reliable source of immunization support and is critical for sustaining health systems.
- Private investors should join the GAVI Campaign’s Matching Fund, which matches private donations 2:1 thereby allowing them to leverage their investments to achieve greater returns through a high impact intervention.
- Local advocacy groups, pediatricians, and parents need to demand safe, effective vaccines and reliable, adequate immunization services from their governments.
- Civil society organizations should encourage citizens to mobilize support for vaccines as a component of a complete package of child health interventions.
I urge you to imagine a day when mothers like Tiemany Diarra can be sure that they’ll celebrate their child’s fifth birthday. This day is possible. Our ability to transform plans and promises from this week’s Child Survival: Call to Action summit into action, will determine whether we can make it happen by forever ending preventable child deaths. After all, what could be better than giving all children the chance to celebrate their fifth birthday.