You wouldn’t know it as you drive along the dusty dirt roads through the remote villages of North Eastern Kenya, but a meeting that will shape the destiny of thousands of children here is taking place in London on Monday.
World leaders will meet to pledge money for an international programme of vaccination in developing countries. The decisions they take over the four-hour summit have the potential to save the lives of four million children.
The Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunisation (GAVI), an international body that helps fund mass immunisation in the developing world, is facing a £2.3 billion funding shortfall over the next five years. Unless that gap can be closed at Monday’s meeting, millions of children around the world could continue to die from diseases that we can prevent.
Vaccines have arguably made the single greatest difference to child survival of any of the medical breakthroughs of the twentieth century. They prevent an estimated 7000 child deaths a day, and save billions of pounds in health bills by preventing deadly diseases.
In Kenya’s impoverished North Eastern Province, where villagers live without electricity, running water and paved roads, vaccines are seen as one of the best ways of boosting a child’s chances of survival.
Abdullah Alnoor lives in the village of Haragal, not far from Kenya's border with Somalia. His two-year old son Mohammed died of pneumonia in April. He hadn’t been given the new pneumococcal vaccine rolled-out here earlier this year; his father didn’t know it was available.
"We'd be happy for our children to be vaccinated against pneumonia," Abdullah says. "It's very common here. Giving children vaccines gives them the best opportunity to survive. It could have given Mohammed a chance."
But that opportunity has been called into question by the gap in GAVI’s finances and the current difficult economic climate has led to fears that rich countries will not pledge enough to save the global vaccine drive, leaving millions of children worldwide at risk of developing deadly and preventable diseases.
That would be a disaster for villages like Haragal, where the only chance of getting access to vaccines is through GAVI2s unique initiative, which brings together governments, international organisations and the vaccine industry to make vaccines cheap enough for developing countries to afford . It is quite simple: if the money is not raised, thousands of children, many not yet born, will die needlessly in coming years.
Even if the funding gap is closed on Monday, the battle to get vaccines to children in North East Kenya will not be over. There is a chronic shortage of health workers here; in Haragal, the hospital stands closed, desperate graffiti scrawled across its wall urging it to reopen. The only medical services here are provided by international aid agencies like Save the Children, in partnership with the government of Kenya.
When the most powerful people in the world meet in London on Monday, they have the lives of four million children in their hands. They must not miss this golden opportunity to save the lives of millions of children; it could be a long time before they get it again.