Child immunization program has saved millions of lives
Associated Press Writer
Longtime child rights campaigner Graca Machel said Thursday a push to immunize children in the developing world against killer diseases has saved millions of lives. But she urged the world to do more.
Machel, the wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, said the multibillion dollar effort launched in 2000 has had unprecedented success. It has brought together wealthy donor countries, multinationals, the pharmaceutical industry and developing nations, she said - part of an effort to cut infant mortality by two-thirds by 2015.
The program, called the Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI, is an alliance of governments, U.N. organizations, the World Bank, the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and pharmaceutical companies. It vaccinates children against diseases such as measles and hepatitis B. It has saved 2.9 million lives so far, according to the World Health Organization.
"If we can save 3 million children a year, we still have 10 million who are dying," Machel told The Associated Press in an interview at a symposium in Barcelona on child immunization. "But we should be able to celebrate the success and progress made because that is what gives us the strength to see that it works."
Machel, 62, is one of Africa's most famous women. In her youth, she fought against Portuguese colonial rule in her native Mozambique, helping steer the country toward independence in 1975. Machel was married to Mozambican president Samora Machel until his death in a plane crash in 1986. She married Mandela in 1998.
The South African anti-apartheid leader and Nobel laureate will turn 90 in July. Festivities, including a June 27 concert at London's Hyde Park and a retrospective on Mandela's life at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, are planned.
Mandela has cut down on travel and public appearances in recent years, but has not retired from activism on global issues like AIDS. Machel said she hoped the world would celebrate her husband's values, rather than the man himself.
"I see this as an opportunity to revive the values he represents," she said of his birthday. "It is the values, it is not the person. If we all can revisit, you know, the deeply human side of ourselves, and that sense of oneness and the sense of solidarity among one another ... If you concentrate on the values that he represents, then you will find your own way of celebrating."
The Barcelona conference brought together experts from around the world to discuss progress on United Nations goals adopted at the turn of the century to combat poverty, disease and hunger.
According to World Health Organization projections, the GAVI project has protected 36.8 million additional children with vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or whooping cough. Measles deaths in Africa have dropped by 90 percent since 2000, and nearly 160 million children have been immunized against hepatitis B.
But challenges remain, particularly in speeding up the time it takes to get new vaccines into widespread use in the developing world - a process event organizers say has typically taken 15 to 20 years.
A program sponsored in part by the Gates Foundation and donor countries aims to reduce that to three to five years.
Machel cited a relatively new vaccine against cervical cancer called HPV as an example of progress, saying developing countries are already preparing to implement it, even as it is being rolled out in the developed world.
Dr. Pedro Alonso, the chairman of the symposium and a leader in the battle against malaria, said another challenge is focusing more of the world's health resources on the diseases that effect its poorest residents.
"While the so-called developing countries constitute more than 90 percent of the world's burden of disease and death, only 10 percent of the global research and development budget goes to the study of the diseases that affect the poor," Alonso said in a press release.
In the AP interview, Machel said the main challenge in helping developing countries is getting past a legacy of disappointments.
"What has been happening with the international community is that there has been a repetition of promises, but they are repeatedly broken," she said. The lesson, she said, is clear: "Don't break the promises you have made to the children of the world. Don't break the promises you have made to the underprivileged citizens of this planet."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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