Baltimore center leads fight to provide vaccines to world's children

IVAC hopes to save the lives of 5 million children over next 20 years

  • Dr. Orin Levine of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins.
Dr. Orin Levine of the International Vaccine Access Center… (Baltimore Sun )
January 21, 2011|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

The woman, a Nigerian mother named Busayo, fought back tears as she recalled going into debt in a futile attempt to treat her infant son's pneumonia. After Busayo spent all of her family's savings — she even sold the family cell phone — the 2-month-old died.

Speaking just above a whisper, the woman was sitting in a small rural church in Nigeria talking with Dr. Orin Levine, who was being featured in the British documentary "Kill or Cure?"

"That really stuck with me," said Levine, the 44-year-old executive director of the International Vaccine Access Center (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Science and Technology Park in East Baltimore. "Those stories from affected parents help you remember the impact we can have on real people all around the world."

For Levine, the stories are a reminder of the importance of the center's efforts to break down the economic and political red tape that prevents millions of children around the world from access to lifesaving vaccines that are widely available in the United States.

"This is just fundamentally wrong," said Levine, a Columbia native now living in Washington. "The mother had to grieve because she was unfortunate enough to have her two daughters in Mali instead of Maryland."

In addition to pneumonia, which is the leading killer of children worldwide, the center is also working on similar efforts to thwart diarrhea, malaria, dengue fever and influenza.

IVAC, which was launched in 2009 by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, works closely with such groups as Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunisation (GAVI Alliance), the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank.

"We're trying to do for all vaccines what we are doing for pneumonia," Levine said. "We want to make sure every child everywhere has access to the lifesaving vaccines they deserve."

The work of Levine and the center has not gone unnoticed.

Joelle Tanguy, managing director for external relations at the Geneva-based GAVI Alliance, described Levine as "an extraordinarily effective and gifted advocate for immunization."

"Orin and his IVAC colleagues have made an enormous contribution to improving global health equity over the years," said Tanguy. "They have succeeded in putting pneumonia, the biggest killer of young children globally, at the heart of the child survival debate and are actively helping to raise billions of dollars to roll out lifesaving pneumococcal vaccines to all children in the world's poorest countries."

In December, representatives of the center visited Nicaragua to dispense the first batch of vaccines to children there. Similar efforts are expected to be completed in another 12 countries this year. By 2015, the goal is to reach 45 countries. Levine expects to prevent the deaths of 5 million children in the next 20 years if the timetable is followed.

IVAC is also exploring the use of cellular phones to improve vaccine coverage in developing nations, according to Levine.

"You have to reach all the children that need the vaccines," Levine explained.

The effort is not cheap. The center's 30 full-time employees and annual budget of $20 million rely heavily on funding from various sources.

"It is important that we maintain and increase the financial support," Levine said. "Without it, the kids in these countries will not have access to these vaccines."

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