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Liberia's vaccine shortfall

child being vaccinated

By Mike Thompson
Today programme, Liberia

As political leaders from around the world gather in London for a special summit aimed at providing life saving vaccines for millions of children, a mother in rural Liberia looks desperately at the coughing baby in her arms.

"My child is coughing and breathing fast, very fast. He can't sleep at night and has fever. I cannot sleep now either. The doctors gave him medicine but his cough is not improving."

Meela Gedou's first child died of pneumonia and she is clearly terrified that the same fate is about to befall his brother too.

Her fear is reflected in the faces of many other parents at this crowed rural clinic, part funded by the charity Save the Children, several hours drive from the capital Monrovia.

An older mother, sitting beside Meela, grabs my arm.

Thirty-five-year-old Mamie Allio tells me she has lost two children to what she calls "the cough" which has swept through her village.

"In our village many children are dying from that sickness, the cough. Sickness, pneumonia. In our village alone seven children have died."

Nearly 3,000 children under five die of pneumonia in Liberia every year. Across the globe that figures tops two million.

It is estimated that pneumonia and diarrhoea kill three times as many under-fives worldwide than malaria and HIV/Aids put together.

Yet vaccines exist to help prevent the first two conditions. The trouble is most developing countries simply cannot afford to buy them.

Vaccines to nearly 290 million children in 19 countries have been rolled out but the funds simply are not there to provide them for 26 other developing nations.

mother by her children's graves
Massa Flomo at the graves of five of her children lost to disease

Under an ambitious vaccination plan proposed by Gavi, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation, the lives of four million children could be saved over the next five years.

The problem is that neither Gavi, which brings together pharmaceutical firms, governments and international organisations, will need nearly £2.5bn in extra funding to do this.

Political leaders meeting in London have the job of finding a way to raise that money.

Last week the pharmaceuticals company GlaxoSmithKline announced that it will supply the new rotavirus vaccine, to help prevent diarrhoea, at cost price to developing countries. But this move, welcome though it is, will only reduce the funding gap for the vaccine programme by around 3%.

Organisations like Oxfam and the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres point out that only a few companies are cutting prices in this way and they are only doing so on a limited range of vaccines. They believe that both pharmaceutical companies and Gavi can do more to ensure vaccines can be bought at cheaper prices.

No jabs available

The pharmaceuticals firms argue, however, that unless they have significant profits to plough back into expensive and often very lengthy research and development, new vaccines will not be developed in the first place.

But time is not on the side of children and their parents in countries like Liberia. The country lacks doctors as well as vaccines. It has only a hundred trained doctors to cope with a population of more than 3.5 million.

Many medical staff fled the country during its long and brutal civil war and have not yet been tempted to return home. Those that are here have to tend to the sick without the help of mains electricity, water or telephone landlines.

The situation is at its worst in rural areas. Many people live in isolated communities, often beyond reach of health clinics. Some are forced to walk for hours to reach their nearest clinic. Many have to ford roaring rivers with a sick child on their back during the wet season to get there.

Yet, somehow, most make it. The trouble is that when they do they often find that the latest vaccines their children need to keep simply are not there.

I am taken to a forest area that rings the village of Moipata, three hours drive north of Monrovia. After a short walk down a mud track through the trees, 38-year-old mother Massa Flomo suddenly stops and begins pointing to various spots around us.

woman with sleeping baby
Despite some price cuts most vaccines remain expensive

"One of my child's graves is over there, another one is right here. My third child is buried right behind my son. Over there, by that bush, is the grave of my oldest child."

Massa has lost five of her eight children to pneumonia, diarrhoea and other unknown illnesses. I ask her why their graves are not marked.

"I haven't been able to mark my children's graves because each time I bury one I feel so bad that I can't stay. It's too painful to return here," she replies, staring at the ground.

The hope is that political leaders from around the world at the conference in London will find a way of somehow finding the £2.4bn needed to fund the planned mass vaccination programme.

Doing so could help save the lives of four million children over the next five years and prevent more forests turning into graveyards like this one.

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