Chickenpox, a routine childhood disease for most of us, can be a killer. My family discovered that when my nephew was infected with the chickenpox virus. We nearly lost him. He was saved only by four months in intensive care. Now his children are protected by a vaccine that virtually eliminates the disease.
The same story can be told about numerous diseases in countries around the world. For this and many reasons, I feel that of all the advances in medicine, vaccines may have provided the most benefit for humanity. They are our frontline of defense against communicable diseases and our best bargain in furthering public health.
I am a doctor specializing in pediatrics and immunizations here in New Mexico. For me the most rewarding sights in medicine are the hospital bed that is not needed, the telephone that does not register an emergency call, and the child who smiles up at me during a well-baby checkup.
We have many more success stories in New Mexico these days because of our outstanding rate of child vaccinations. We are above the national average for children receiving flu shots, for instance, and we have avoided measles outbreaks twice in the last 10 years.
In both cases vaccinations prevented the spread of the disease to even one extra person. Diseases that were commonplace when I was in my residency at UNMH in the 1980s have almost disappeared. We seldom see the diarrhea, dehydration and vomiting of rotavirus thanks to a vaccine introduced within the last 10 years.
Until recently only children in developed countries like the U.S. had access to the benefits of established vaccines, while children in low-income countries waited years or decades before new vaccines reached them.
An organization called Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has changed that in just 14 years. They are an international partnership responsible for ensuring new vaccines reach the kids that need them most. They have brought basic life-saving vaccines to almost half a billion children, saving over 6 million lives.
Gavi brings less obvious benefits as well. Millions of children will be stronger for not having the damage a serious disease such as polio can inflict. Health delivery systems are strengthened because of the coordinated effort needed to reach complete populations.
Stronger health systems protect against outbreaks of other communicable diseases. It is no accident that Ebola has taken its greatest toll in countries that have poor public health systems. It is to our advantage to promote health in every country. Gavi’s remarkable record shows that it accomplishes this goal effectively and efficiently.
Gavi is funded by donor contributions, co-financing from target countries and saving money by driving down vaccine prices. To expand on its work, Gavi needs $7.5 billion over the next four years, of which $1.2 billion will come from the receiving countries. This amount will immunize an additional 300 million children and save over 5 million more lives. It will raise the percentage of children protected by the WHO-recommended 11 vaccines from 5 percent today to 50 percent in 2020.
If fully funded, it could be the last big push before vaccination programs change from expansion to maintenance mode, permanently lowering the yearly cost.
The U.S. has not yet said what it will contribute. The funding conference will happen this January. Gavi is requesting a U.S. contribution of $1 billion over four years. Reps. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Ben Ray Luján are among over 60 members of Congress co-sponsoring House Resolution 688, joining civil society groups such as RESULTS in urging President Obama to strengthen our world defense against disease by supporting Gavi. They deserve our thanks for their foresight in protecting New Mexico.
We can also ask Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich to support the companion Resolution 578 and urge President Obama to pledge our fair share at the funding conference.
We should reward Gavi’s outstanding success that so clearly helps both children overseas and our own families here.
Dr. Knott is a member of the New Mexico Immunization Coalition.