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Investing in vaccines can save the Third World

Experts are now talking about ending preventable childhood deaths completely.
Experts are now talking about ending preventable childhood deaths completely.
Mary Ann Chastain, File, Associated Press

It's never convenient for society to protect itself from dangerous diseases. Just ask air travelers flying into one of five large U.S. airports from West Africa. For the next little while, every one of them will have his or her temperature taken, and even those without fevers will be asked to provide contact information and to take their temperature daily.

But if the Ebola outbreak in Africa seems hopeless, it is important to remember that medical science can, and often does, perform wonders, even in Africa.

That was part of the message Namala Mkopi delivered recently when he met with the Deseret News editorial board. Mkopi is head of pediatric hematology in the Oncology Unit of Muhimbili National Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

He doesn’t deal with Ebola patients, but up until a year or so ago he dealt with more than his share of dying children. He described what the children’s ward was like. “You’re talking three children in every bed and on mattresses on the floor. So, it’s full, and many of them end up dead.”

These were not just the children of poor, uneducated people. Mkopi remembers vividly being woken at 3 a.m. one day by a phone call from a crying mother, desperate for someone to help her child. It wasn’t until he met her at the hospital that he realized the mother was a co-worker, another doctor.

Her child had suffered a sudden onset of diarrhea, often a killer in Third World countries, brought on by rotavirus. Mkopi was able to save the child’s life, but he admits, “That was a wake-up call to me.” Being a doctor with an education and a decent income was no guarantee.

Later, when his own son was born, Mkopi asked a friend in Nairobi to send him some rotavirus vaccine. It comes in two doses, to be taken four weeks apart. He administered the first dose, then struggled to keep the second dose refrigerated during a long power outage.

Such are the challenges of medicine in the Third World. However, in 2013 the rotavirus vaccine became widely available in Tanzania, thanks to money from GAVI, an international vaccine alliance created in 2000 and funded in part by governments, the United States included, and other groups as diverse as the British-based Comic Relief and LDS Charities.

The difference, Mkopi said, has been astounding. “One can say it’s a miracle, but it’s simple science. The vaccine works. We don’t see any more young people in the wards. Sometimes you might go into the ward and there’s no child there at all. In just one year.”

Dr. Scott Leckman, a Salt Lake surgeon and chairman of the board at Results, an international advocacy group for the poor, said the lesson of the last 30 years is that an intelligent approach to immunization, and the infrastructure necessary to administer vaccines, works. (Full disclosure: Results gave me an award in 2011 for my writing about issues affecting the poor.)

“Experts are now talking about ending preventable child deaths altogether,” he said. “We will achieve it. The only question is how many children are going to die in the meantime.”

GAVI’s figures show that in 1990, 12.6 million children died in Third World countries from a variety of diseases that were preventable by vaccines available in wealthier countries. In 2015, that figure is projected to be 4.2 million.

And while some Americans may balk at using their own tax dollars to provide such vaccines, GAVI’s programs are set up in such a way that the nations that benefit begin to cover their own costs once the crisis subsides.

Mkopi was in Salt Lake as part of a nationwide tour to encourage Congress to increase its contribution to GAVI. The request isn’t for much. Right now Congress appropriates $200 million per year. The request is to make that $250 million.

But the result would be healthier children in Africa which, not to be ignored, would result in healthier African economies, more hope and less chance that extremism will thrive.

Convenient or not, it’s a vital investment for the U.S. that will pay big dividends.

Jay Evensen is the senior editorial columnist at the Deseret News. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, jayevensen.com.