Troubling international events, including the rise of ISIS, tensions with Russia over Ukraine, and worries about Ebola have contributed to impressions that rapid global changes are outrunning our ability to deal with them. The U.S. political system appears incapable of generating a consensus on international affairs amidst calls that range from closing borders to remilitarizing our foreign policy.
But we should neither lose confidence in our ability to influence events, nor downsize our global activities. An unstable world should cause us to redouble positive efforts to support humanitarian interests and American values abroad.
Among our most effective tools for stabilizing fragile states and improving perceptions of the United States are our global health programs. They not only have tremendous humanitarian impact, they contribute to our national security and ultimately create trading partners that bolster our economy. Especially important are our efforts to immunize young children against deadly diseases like measles, pneumonia and diarrhea. As it confronts numerous global crises, the Obama administration will soon face a critical decision in this arena that is not receiving headlines.
As a U.S. senator, I supported Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to help immunize more than 440 million children in the world’s poorest countries against deadly diseases, saving more than 6 million lives. The U.S. government must increase its longstanding investment in this critical Alliance. By doing so, we can build on the gains we’ve made in immunizing children around the world and help ensure that all children in poor countries have access to life-saving vaccines going forward, especially those in the hardest to reach places.
Here are some of the reasons why immunization is still one of the best buys in foreign aid:
First: Immunization transforms lives. Without vaccines, many children in poor countries will die, and millions more will suffer from painful and debilitating illnesses. They may miss weeks of school or even need to drop out early. Their families often struggle to pay for medical care. Yet just a series of simple shots provides life-long protection against these diseases. Immunization is a tried and tested way to get children off to a healthy start – and healthy children grow up to build stronger, more self-reliant communities and nations.
Second: Immunization programs help break the cycle of poverty, hunger and disease. When parents bring their children to clinics for vaccines, they also gain access to other health services such as growth monitoring and vitamin supplements. Over time, this helps children as well as adults stay healthy and productive.
Investments in vaccines also benefit other priority efforts for the United States. The transportation links and supply chain skills developed for vaccines can be leveraged for other essential supplies, as well. This has yielded improvements in storage and transportation capacity to manage temperature-sensitive health commodities, such as for maternal and child health and essential laboratory services. Thanks to these ripple effects, investments in immunization pay off over and over.
Third: Aid for immunization is being spent efficiently. Gavi negotiates to significantly reduce the price of vaccines paid by the world’s poorest countries. For example, Gavi has worked with the pharmaceutical industry to bring down the price of the pneumococcal vaccine by more than 90 percent for Gavi-eligible countries, protecting children in the poorest countries against pneumonia, the single biggest killer of those under age 5 globally.
And donor countries like the United States aren’t paying the full bill to immunize the world’s poorest children. Every country that obtains vaccines through Gavi must contribute a share of the cost based on their ability to pay. Even the poorest countries have a responsibility to immunize their children. As a country’s income grows, it takes on an increasing percentage of the cost for the vaccines, leading to graduation from Gavi support. This helps ensure that everyone is motivated to use each dollar wisely.
Fourth: Immunization programs get results. Gavi will be having its second replenishment meeting this January in Berlin, and $7.5 billion in investments from donor governments is needed to support and expand immunization programs for the next 5 years. With this support, we can help immunize 300 million more children and save an additional five million to six million lives. To put that in perspective, it is about the number of annual births in the United States, the United Kingdom and France combined.
This is a real opportunity. The United States has done a great deal, but the fight is far from over. I urge the United States to continue its commitment to immunization by pledging $1 billion for Gavi for the period between 2015-2018. Millions of poor children in the hardest to reach places lack access to existing vaccines that can give them a chance at healthy and productive lives. The long-term investment by the United States in vaccines for children is effective, provides great value for the money and is the right thing to do.
Luger was senator from Indiana from 1977 to 2013. He is the founder of the Luger Center, which promotes food and energy security, the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and effective bipartisanship.