Pneumonia and diarrheal disease are the two leading killers of children in the developing world, killing more children each year than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined. This week, people around the world are taking action to put an end to deaths from these preventable and treatable diseases in children and adults.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is partnering with 170 of its 193 member countries to vaccinate people around the world and to spread awareness about the importance of vaccinations.
Spokesman for the World Health Organization’s Americas division (Pan American Health Organization) Dan Epstein says hundreds of thousands of people have already been vaccinated since events kicked off on Saturday.
"A main obstacle is when people don’t know their kids should be vaccinated or don't know that, for example, adults should be revaccinated against influenza. So awareness is one of the biggest obstacles we face," he said.
The Pan American Health Organization has a goal of vaccinating 41 million people in the Americas from April 23 to April 30. Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean region also are participating. And Africa and the Western Pacific region are both holding their first-ever immunization week.
Epstein says the Americas lead the world in vaccinations, having been the first to eliminate smallpox in 1971 and polio in 1991. But he says there are still many hard-to-reach places, along borders and in rural areas, where the preventable diseases are still widespread.
Dr. Keith Van Zandt and his wife, Dede, personally understand the risk of not vaccinating young children. They adopted their daughter, Annie, from Romania 16 years ago. They did not even get Annie home to the United States before they discovered she had contracted Hepatitis B from her birth mother.
Today, Dr. Van Zandt says his 18-year-old daughter still fights the virus that causes inflammation of the liver. "Personally, it still sickens me to know the disease my daughter has was completely preventable by a simple vaccine, had that been available to Annie and her mother," he said.
That is why the Van Zandts are speaking out as advocates of the nonpartisan, advocacy group, ONE, that has launched an awareness campaign this week aimed at saving the lives of 4 million children in five years through pneumonia and diarrhea vaccinations.
Their initiative is part of a global push ahead of a June pledging conference for world leaders to commit funding for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization’s effort to vaccinate 243 million children.
Part of their initiative includes getting a half-million people to sign a petition to U.S. President Barack Obama asking him to fund childhood vaccinations. ONE Communications Director Ginny Wolfe says so little money is needed that it could be spared even in tough economic times. "In fact, it is such a small percentage that it’s just a little percent of what is less than 1 percent of the budget that has financed programs to save millions of lives all over the world in the last decade," she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with ONE to spread awareness about the "cost-effectiveness" of vaccinations. Dr. Robert Block, head of the academy, says more than 2 million children die from pneumonia and diarrhea each year, but he says vaccinations can stop this. "Well, I think the effectiveness is great. What we are going to try and do is provide vaccines at a reasonable cost to countries in the developing world so that we can create access for parents to get their children immunized against what would otherwise be deadly sometimes diseases," he said.
WHO estimates that vaccines have helped prevent more than 2.5 million deaths each year that would occur without vaccinations.