Our children should live to celebrate their fifth birthday

Friday November 12 2010

By Dr Fred Were

In Africa, we understand how fragile life is. Too many babies die from diseases that take our children before they even reach the age of five. One of the biggest killers is pneumonia – and soon, we will have a vaccine that can help stop it in its tracks.

I anxiously wait to see when the latest vaccines already in use in Europe will reach our children. Typically it can take 15 to 20 years. But this week, as we mark World Pneumonia Day, I am optimistic that we’re moving faster than ever before toward getting a vaccine that will help save our children’s lives.

In January, Kenya will begin providing infants with pneumococcal vaccines through a ground-breaking mechanism called the Advance Market Commitment (AMC). The GlaxoSmithKline vaccine, Synflorix, was introduced in Europe less than two years ago. This is the first time that African children are receiving a new vaccine so quickly.

Not only will the AMC get pneumococcal vaccines to African countries in record time, but it will also reduce the price of the vaccines by approximately 90 per cent on average. This was made possible by a coalition of international donors, including the GAVI Alliance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and five countries – the United Kingdom, Canada, Russia, Norway and Italy.

Immunisation is by far the most effective strategy we have to prevent children from dying of pneumococcal disease, a leading cause of pneumonia. In my home country of Kenya, I have seen too many children die because they couldn’t get to a health centre in time. By the time they arrived, their breathing was laboured and slow, their bodies dehydrated and listless. I knew what to do, but sometimes I didn’t have the oxygen and IVs at hand to save them. I know this is all too common in many parts of Africa. Without the vaccine, pneumonia will continue to kill children worldwide, claiming a life every 20 seconds. Most will be African children.

Over the next decade, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer will provide about 600 million doses of their pneumococcal vaccines to the world’s poorest countries. More vaccine manufacturers are expected to join over the coming years. All in all, the AMC is expected to help save seven million lives over the next two decades. We must work together to get the vaccine to every child who needs it without delay. In Uganda, about 64 per cent of children receive routine immunisations.

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Let’s set a goal to increase this number and reach every child with lifesaving vaccines. We’ll need to prioritise the training and retention of health workers, and we need to create inoculation clinics that can reach children in remote areas of the country.
African countries will also need to step up – as Kenya has done – to request pneumococcal vaccines through the AMC and make preparations to deliver them to every child. Globally, we need even greater commitments from donor countries to ensure these vaccines reach all children who need them without delay.

This is an historic moment for us. In a matter of weeks, the first African babies will begin receiving new lifesaving pneumococcal vaccines. In my 20 years as a paediatrician, I am optimistic for the first time that we will be able to protect our children against this disease. I can imagine an Africa where all our children live to celebrate their fifth birthdays.

Dr Fred Were is national chairman of the Kenya Paediatric Association. He is also a member of the Sabin Vaccine Institute’s Pneumococcal Awareness Council of Experts (PACE)

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