By Andrea Sok
Tonia Sanders, a Champion for the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign, recently sat down with Joan Awunyo-Akaba, civil society representative on the GAVI Alliance Board, which works to increase access to immunization in low-income countries. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Future Generations International, a Ghanaian based NGO that promotes health and development. Sanders, a blogger (thechattymomma.com), mother of two, and passionate advocate for global vaccines, posed questions about the current and future states of global immunization programs. Here are highlights from their conversation:
Tonia Sanders: Joan, what made you want to get involved in this type of work?
Joan Awunyo-Akaba: It is because children cannot talk for themselves. Someone has to tell their story, and I’m interested in telling the story of children. But most importantly, I’m interested in ensuring that a child gets a fair deal as a start in life.
Tonia Sanders: In your many years of work to support global vaccines, what continues to surprise you about immunizations?
Joan Awunyo-Akaba: I have seen children die from measles. They get measles and end up being terribly malnourished. Because we have promoted immunization in Ghana to a certain extent, for the past several years no child has died from measles infection in Ghana. So, vaccines are a wonder. They have contributed to ensuring that children live.
Tonia Sanders: What areas have you seen great progress in global health and where do you think we are continuing to fall short?
Joan Awunyo-Akaba: I believe we have all heard of the wonder of India eradicating polio? It’s a great achievement. My joy is that the colleagues who contributed to this are colleagues who are on the committee with me. The passion that drives them is that they are getting to people to inform them about the safety of the vaccine and the dangers of not having their children immunized.
My colleagues, and those of us in civil society, [are] driving the importance of immunization and encouraging mothers to have their children immunized.
Tonia Sanders: From your perspective, how important is it for countries in Africa to invest in immunization programs with partners?
Joan Awunyo-Akaba: It’s very important. I’ll use my country as an example. Ghana appreciate[s] what the international community is doing for us to immunize, because we know that it is through their donations that the GAVI Alliance is able to support our immunization programs.
My organization is driving the immunization sustainability fund to mobilize domestic funds for the support of immunization programs in our country. We very much appreciate your government, the American people, and their contribution to GAVI to be able to purchase vaccines for our countries.
We are also very mindful of the fact that we need not take these donations for granted. We need to, as a country, be in readiness – to be able to purchase the vaccines and to maintain the gains that have been made. However, we [are] again pleading that there is the need for industry to see whether they can beat down the prices so that our countries can afford, in a sustainable model, the vaccines that they ought to buy to continue with the proper programs.
Tonia Sanders: Joan, thank you so much for your time, anything you want to leave our audience with?
Joan Awunyo-Akaba: Vaccines are real; they do protect the life of children. I have a very dear friend who just turned 64. She had only one child in life. When that child was 2-years-old, that child contracted measles and died. Even now, when she talks about her little girl, she cries. So all I want to say is that children are so precious.
I have two daughters. I came with my youngest – she is 34, but she is still my baby. So all I want to say is indeed there are a lot of stories out there concerning immunization and the safety of vaccines. Vaccines are safe.
I would rather take the chance of ensuring that my child doesn’t get measles and die, that my child doesn’t get polio. I will take that chance: to ensure that my child doesn’t die and lives through to fight.
Editor’s Note: If you want to get involved in global efforts to protect children from measles through life-saving vaccines, join Shot@Life’s Stop the Stops campaign.