No one likes to get a shot. On the way to the pediatrician’s office my son Julian is excited at the prospect of a lollipop, but more afraid that he’s going to “get a poke.” And he often does – as a healthy four-year-old, Julian usually only visits the doctor for routine check-ups, and these usually involve a few immunization booster shots.
My husband and I adopted Julian from Taiwan, a country where nearly every child receives routine vaccination against childhood illnesses. By the time we brought him home to Washington, DC, he was almost 10 months old and had already been through a few rounds of shots. Since then there have been a few more. And while Julian may complain, as his mother, I’m grateful for every single one.
To me, each vaccination represents a nightmare that I’ll never have to face. I will never watch as a sore throat turns from common to catastrophic, leading to heart failure and coma because of diphtheria. I’ll never worry if the cut Julian got on the playground exposed him to tetanus, which would steal his breath before taking his life. I’ll never fear that measles, rubella, or polio could take him from us before he reaches the first grade. These are not exaggerated anxieties. This is the reality for millions of mothers throughout the world. Every year, one and a half million children die from vaccine-preventable diseases before their fifth birthday. Each one leaves behind grieving parents who would have done anything to save their child’s life.
We can stop these senseless deaths and give every child a shot at a healthier life. In fact, we’ve already made tremendous progress. Since 2000, the GAVI Alliance – a unique partnership between governments, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, UNICEF, the World Health Organization, the World Bank, and private companies – has helped immunize an additional 440 million children in the world’s poorest countries – saving six million lives in the process.
As a result of this work, over the past three years more than 30 additional countries have introduced a vaccine that prevents pneumonia, one of the leading killers of children under five.
In parts of Kenya, immunization has eliminated Hib meningitis, which can cause lifelong deafness, brain damage and epilepsy. In Nigeria, more than 60 million people are now being vaccinated against yellow fever, as part of the first national campaign against this potentially fatal illness in three decades.
All in all, four out of five of the world’s children – including Julian and most of his peers in the United States– are now receiving at least a basic set of vaccines.
Now it’s time to reach that fifth child. Just last week, the GAVI Alliance set out a roadmap for immunizing 300 million more children in the five years ending in 2020. That means protecting two more children every second, and promises to save five million to six million more lives.
But we can’t get there without continued generous support from the United States and other donor governments. GAVI’s five-year plan requires an additional $7.5 billion investment – money that will be spent to help countries build their health systems and provide cost-effective vaccines wherever they are needed. The next five years also provides us with an opportunity to improve immunization coverage, even in some of the most remote and difficult places in the world.
The United States has been a major supporter of childhood immunization from the beginning. And while Congress still needs to approve it this year, the Obama Administration requested its largest-ever contribution to the GAVI Alliance earlier this year. Now, when we are so close to being able to protect an entire generation of children, it’s critically important to stay committed to the cause.
In the end, Julian is always so excited about his lollipop and the promise of a superhero Band-Aid that he barely notices the needle going into his arm. Vaccination is one of the simplest, most powerful tools we have to get kids off to a better start – which is why it’s so important to give every kid, everywhere a shot.
Natasha Bilimoria is director of U.S. strategy for the GAVI Alliance.