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Liberia: The power of vaccines

Last week in a small village two hours drive from Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, I sat outside the small house of Bendu Smith, aged 33, mother, wife, rubber plantation worker and tireless provider for her family, who had recently lost her treasured four month old baby boy Ricardo to pneumonia.

Her other twin, Jeremiah, was fighting for his life. Bendu took us to the tiny grave at the edge of the village in the baking midday sun. We stood there speechless and moved by her quiet dignity.

She thanked us for coming and told us her story of having to walk and travel miles to a hospital and it being too late to save Ricardo.

Now, a Save the Children frontline health worker, Jemama, was helping treat Jeremiah as Bendu had visited our clinic. On our second visit a few days later he looked much better. Though painfully thin and still breathing heavily he now looked like he might make it.

After 20 years of working on global poverty and injustice, it is still as shocking and moving as ever to talk to a mum who has lost her baby from something that would never happen in the UK.

Injustice

No child should be born to die of a preventable illness like pneumonia.

I went to Liberia to see our health programmes first hand in the run up to the London Vaccines Summit on 13 June.

This one meeting, if the money is pledged, could save 4 million children’s lives in four hours, by funding existing vaccines for measles, diphtheria and tetanus, as well as new vaccines for pneumonia and diarrhoea, the two big killers of children alongside malaria.

Please take action today and sign our petition calling on world leaders to make this happen.

Vaccines for all

Making vaccines available to all the children of Liberia will save thousands and thousands of lives.

Already the government, under the impressive leadership of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is making big strides forward and I saw first hand its vaccine and health programmes.

But in a country where 112 children die out of every thousand (down from 247 per 1000 at the height of the civil war) there are only 100 doctors. In Bong county, a district of 370,000 people, they only have four trained doctors.

Save the Children is playing a supporting role funding 21 clinics across the country, helping hundreds of thousands of mums and children. Vaccines are critical to progress but they don’t inject themselves. It is the health workers – nurses, midwives and doctors – who are the true heroes.

The need for health workers

While we were at the Save the Children health clinic in Kingsville a mother gave birth to a new baby boy – named Justin in honour of my visit. But the real hero was Kaytor Kowo, a midwife of 25 years, who through thick and thin during the war years helped mums not die in child birth.

She proudly told us she had delivered over 1000 babies and no mother had died in child birth in the last five years in her clinic.

Kaytor, Aletha, Ciatta and also Amos, the motorbike driver who takes vaccines to remote villages, are remarkable people. Liberia should be very proud of them.

As we build towards a big UN meeting in September it is the faces of these extraordinary people I will take with me to New York to demand that governments fund and train 3.5 million health workers to save millions of children and mums in countries around the world.

Message to leaders

As we prepared to leave Freeman village, home of Bendu, I asked her what her message was for world leaders, in the run up to the London Vaccines Summit.

She said, “I ask world leaders to bring vaccines so that our children can be well.” A simple request. One that I will take with me to the meeting on 13 June.

Call on world leaders to listen to Bendu by signing our petition which demands they fully fund the expansion of global vaccination programmes at the 13 June London Summit.

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