Over the course of my first 10 years after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill I've aspired to serve on multiple fronts: as a Marine, a co-founder of a nonprofit in one of Africa's largest slums and, most recently, as a dad, businessman and author. All the while I've seen the power of young people to spark change and shape their future, if given a chance.
My family and I live in Charlotte, and we are blessed to have access to some of the highest quality health care in the world. The circumstances are far different for millions of children around the world, including many in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya - the location of our nonprofit, Carolina For Kibera (CFK).
In Kibera, nearly half of the population is under age 15. Children are as much a part of the chaotic, ever-changing landscape as the miles upon miles of tin-roofed shacks and twisting mud pathways. Kibera is at once a thriving sea of talented, beautiful people and a cauldron of filth and despair. It is joy and pain, and triumph and heartbreak. Two preventable diseases - pneumonia and diarrhea - cause its worst moments: the death of children.
It's unimaginable to lose your child to a disease that can often be prevented through vaccination for less than $10. It shouldn't happen, not in our world of plenty. It's not right. It's intolerable.
The two principal causes of child death in the developing world are pneumonia and diarrhea. Together they account for more than a third of 8 million child deaths each year. The good news is that new, low-cost vaccines for pneumococcal disease and rotavirus, two deadly forms of pneumonia and diarrhea, respectively, are now available thanks to years of work by a coalition of foundations, businesses, pharmaceutical companies, health officials and governments called the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).
These new vaccines each cost approximately $7 or less per person. While the price of preventing this tragic loss of life is dropping, it is still prohibitively expensive to much of the world. By some estimates nearly a fifth of the world lives on less than $1.50 a day.
Given the barriers to creating a market-based solution, the U.S. government helped to start GAVI in 2000 and has since invested nearly $650 million toward its work with donors and partners to purchase and distribute cost-effective vaccines in poor countries. With a contribution that currently makes up roughly 13 percent of the total commitments to GAVI, U.S. support leverages $7 from other donors for every $1 we invest.
In February, GAVI partnered with the Kenyan government and introduced the new pneumococcal vaccine. The Tabitha Medical Clinic, a cornerstone of Carolina For Kibera's mission to develop young leaders there, was one of the first facilities to begin administering and measuring the effectiveness of this life-saving vaccine in collaboration with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Initial results are encouraging. However, rotavirus vaccine, which could prevent many of the 250,000 deaths from rotavirus gastroenteritis annually in Africa alone, is not currently available in Kenya or elsewhere in Africa because GAVI has insufficient funds to purchase and administer it.
There are no easy solutions to a set of problems as complex as extreme poverty. These vaccines are not panaceas. But they are starting points.
Soon the U.S. will announce its pledge for GAVI. A pledge of $450 million over the next three years will uphold a commitment to get underutilized and new vaccines, including those newly available to fight pneumonia and diarrhea, to the children who need them. It will also remain consistent with our overall contribution rate of approximately 13 percent of the total funding needed.
The U.S. government spends approximately 1 percent its annual budget in total foreign assistance, of which the percentage for global health is an even smaller fraction. According to GAVI, our contributions have helped immunize more than 288 million children and prevented the deaths of more than 5 million children since 2000. This is a great success story, and it would be tragic to abandon it now.
Kibera and the Marines showed me the power of investing in young people directly and taking more action to prevent violence, rather than react to it. This is why I am joining forces with the ONE Campaign (ONE.org) - and the close to 40,000 ONE members in North Carolina - to rally our neighbors to get involved by calling upon Congress not to abandon its support for the deployment of these two new cost-effective vaccines.
Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Let's help give future young leaders in Africa and beyond a healthy start at life.
Rye Barcott is author of "It Happened on the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace."