Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made reducing the mortality rate of pregnant women, new mothers, their babies and children under 5 Canada’s international-development priority, committing $2.8-billion over five years to the initiative at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka. In May, he will host a high-level meeting on maternal and child health in Toronto to push for further action.
One of the keys to reducing mortality among mothers and babies is vaccination. Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Alliance, was in Ottawa recently for preparatory talks related to the Toronto meeting. GAVI is a global public-private partnership committed to increasing access to immunization and reducing death from vaccine-preventable illness. Berkley spoke with The Globe and Mail about gains and losses on the immunization front.
There has been a lot of progress on child immunization since GAVI was founded in 2002. What is your biggest achievement?
We have much better coverage than in the past. The expansion of the number of vaccines is also important. We now have vaccines for the biggest killers of children: diarrhea, pneumonia, as well as vaccines against cervical cancer for adolescent girls, against rubella, meningitis. We are protecting a lot more children against a lot more diseases.
The numbers of lives saved is impressive.
We’ve immunized 440 million children since GAVI began and avoided more than six million deaths. Just as importantly, we’re now in an acceleration phase. In the next five years – once we replenish our funds – we will prevent another six million deaths. Thirteen years for the first six million, five years for the next six million.
We’ve just seen the elimination of polio in India. Does an achievement like that help your cause?
It helps extraordinarily. A few years ago India had the most polio cases in the world and cynics said elimination was impossible, that it would never happen. Well, India got its act together and did a remarkable job. What they’ve done is strengthen their system to reach children who could not be reached before. Now we’re taking people who worked on polio and getting them to do routine immunization.
The gains we’ve talked about are all in the developing world. In the developed world there’s a resurgence of vaccine-preventable illness. Is that frustrating?
It’s horrible. And there are two reasons for this. When something gets posted on the Internet that’s wrong – like the assertion by Andrew Wakefield that MMR vaccine causes autism – it’s still out there even though it’s been disproven and repudiated. The second reason is that we have a situation where many Canadians have never seen these diseases so it’s easy to say, ‘Well, it’s not that bad. It’s not going to happen here.’ This indifference is leading to outbreaks and we’re seeing them all over the world: in Canada, in Switzerland, in Russia, all over.
You visit parts of the world where mothers walk for days to get their children immunized and in Canada, where it’s easy, it seems [some people] can’t be bothered.
The difference is that in the places where they walk for days they’ve seen their children die. They know all too well how deadly these diseases are. Parents all over the world want to help their children. If Canadian women were living in a community where, God forbid, they would see the graves of small children who died of measles every morning, they too would be clamouring, they would be doing everything in their power to get vaccines. Here the problem is invisible.
The Canadian government is planning a high-level meeting on child and maternal health in May. What do you expect?
If I go on what has happened in the past, some positive action. At the G8, Stephen Harper’s Muskoka Initiative turned out to be a galvanizing moment. He put a stake in the ground about the importance of this issue, so I’m excited by the fact that he’s going to continue that discussion and remind people we’re not finished. I hope immunization will be a key part of the conversation.
This interview has been condensed and edited.