Deadly side-effects in Ivory Coast and a Déjà Vu moment

Child getting vaccinated
Mike Urban

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the violent political confrontation and deadly civil unrest in Ivory Coast is that basic life-saving activities for many innocent bystanders can also get suspended.

We in the media will cover the political clashes, the riots and the shootings.

But little attention is typically given to the mothers who die at home in childbirth — or to the kids who die because of lack of efforts like vaccination.

So it was good to see that a few media in Africa, the UN’s IRIN news service and AngolaPress, broke out of this rut:

Unrest following Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential election is blocking a nationwide vaccination drive against yellow fever, a fatal mosquito-borne disease that is affecting people throughout the country.

About a dozen people have died so far from this yellow fever outbreak and more will be put at risk for as long as health workers are unable to get out and vaccinate.

I witnessed nearly the same thing there a decade ago.

On assignment for Seattle PI in West Africa
Mike Urban

I happened to be in Ivory Coast almost exactly 10 years ago to cover the intended launch of the Gates Foundation’s largest project — the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).

At the time, I was working for a dearly-departed print newspaper, the (now much staff-reduced, online only) Seattle Post Intelligencer, with my friend and PI photographer Mike Urban. Mike took the photos featured here. The Gates Foundation had earlier announced it was giving a billion dollars to create GAVI and get basic vaccines out to kids in poor countries.

The plan was to launch GAVI in Ivory Coast because it was, at the time, one of the most stable countries in West Africa with a fairly functional if basic health system. So the Seattle PI decided to send us to get a look at the beginning of this historic project.

When Mike and I arrived, we instead found a powder keg situation. Armed soldiers were all over Abidjan and people were nervous, worried. We still went out to visit clinics and talk to health workers. My newspaper paid good money to get us there and my editor thought an impending civil war was no excuse for not doing our job.

So we reported on the folks trying to do public health amid a brewing civil war. Things didn’t look good. And soon after we left the country to go travel in Nigeria on another assignment, Ivory Coast exploded. Here’s the story I wrote about what happened and what this did to the Gates Foundation’s plans for vaccinating kids.

This tale of collateral damage is little more than a footnote to the standard way we cover political turmoil and civil unrest in these countries (or anywhere, for that matter).

But the current strife in Ivory Coast has produced a major Déjà Vu moment for me. A disturbing one. I can’t help but think of all the children, pregnant women, sick eldery folks and others who suffer, and die, to little notice when these political struggles for power erupt.

A side note: It isn’t just civil unrest that can kill. Loss of donor interest in supporting something so mundane as child vaccinations can kill just as well. As the Seattle Times recently reported, the Gates Foundation, PATH and others are big on pushing immunization as a cheap, effective way to save millions of lives.

But GAVI is now facing a serious funding shortfall and, unless rich nations step up, kids will die from apathy just as surely as from civil war.

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About Author

Editor Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom-at-humanosphere.org, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.

  • Terry Lawhead

    Great piece, Tom. It was moving to see the juxtaposition of your writing a decade ago and about what is happening today. thanks.