Much ado about vaccines: Propaganda, Disneyland and Gates

Credit: UNICEF

Vaccines and the diseases they prevent sure are getting a lot of attention these days. From international pledges for vaccine purchases to a measles outbreak in California to debates over vaccine prices, stories abound about the lifesaving treatment. It is rare that so much attention has converged on vaccines, and it is easy to miss some of the big stories.

Here are some stories that caught my attention in the past few weeks:

Gavi raises $7.5 billion

One Campaign protesters outside the GAVI pledging event, London, 13 June 2011. (Credit: Russell Watkins/DfID)

One Campaign protesters outside the Gavi pledging event in London, June 13, 2011. (Credit: Russell Watkins/DfID)

World leaders pledged $7.5 billion to the public-private vaccine alliance, Gavi. The money will fund the organization’s goal of bringing price-reduced vaccines to the world’s poorest countries. It was a triumphant achievement for Gavi and supporters of vaccines.

“We believe that vaccines should reach every child because this is one of the most effective ways of reducing preventable deaths in the poorest countries,” said Dagfinn Høybråten, chair of the Gavi board, in a release. The commitments made today will ensure Gavi can make a telling contribution towards the global community’s goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030.”

The leading pledges came from Norway, the United Kingdom and the Gates Foundation. The pledge of more than $1.5 billion by Gates is a quick show of leadership and action in the wake of the foundation’s much-publicized annual letter. But it is only one part of the Gates vaccine machine that is revving up.

Gates and vaccines: From propaganda to philanthropy

Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Discovery by Alexia Sinclair

Edward Jenner’s Smallpox Discovery by Alexia Sinclair

There are few people who can claim to be more vocally supportive of vaccines than Bill Gates. Add to this the fact that his foundation pours billions into vaccines and it is safe to say that he is the equivalent of a booster for the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. If there were a cool phrase for vaccines, like “roll Tide,” you can bet Gates would say it at every public event.

Kidding aside, Gates is serious about vaccines. It is why he is so supportive of the polio eradication effort. It is also why the 2015 Gates letter predicted an AIDS vaccine, and maybe even an improved one for malaria, will be available by 2030.

“We won’t see the end of AIDS. But both for malaria and AIDS we’re seeing the tools that will let us do 95 to 100 percent reduction. Those tools will be invented during this 15-year period,” said Gates at the World Economic Forum last week.

The foundation’s support does not end with money for the vaccines and bold predictions. It is also getting into the propaganda game through The Art of Saving a Life. Musicians, artists, photographers and writers all contributed to the Gates-backed campaign to promote vaccines. As the website reads:

Vaccines are one of the greatest advances in human history. They have saved millions of lives, and led to better health and opportunity for children and families everywhere.

The stories behind this success and the future promise of immunization must be told.

Acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the contributors. Her story is a ode former Nigerian Health Minister Olikoye Ransome-Kuti, the man who brought free vaccines and better access to family planning to Nigeria in the 1980s. The story is beautiful, as always from Adichie, but it is propoganda dressed up as storytelling, argued Katy Waldman in Slate.

“Adichie is backing a noble cause; she’s created an affecting piece of writing; her story is easily as worth your time as whatever else you might be reading on the Internet. But were the issue not vaccines—were it, perhaps, the war on terror, or climate change—would we be so enthused to see a beloved author selling an organization’s party line?” wrote Waldman.

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For the Gates Foundation, this is another foray into media. Its portfolio of activities include grants to NPR and the Guardian for their reporting on development, to the International Reporting Project for international reporting trips (both Humanosphere Toms have been on one) and now for the Global Poverty Project and its cadre of global citizens. Not all are instances of propaganda for vaccines, but to point toward the foundation’s intentions to see more media covering and discussing vaccines.

Are pharmaceutical companies gouging vaccine prices?

Credit: Wade M/flickr

Credit: Wade M/flickr

The pneumococcal disease vaccine is too damn high, said Doctors Without Borders last week. One of the drug makers, Pfizer, responded by announcing cuts in its price from $3.30 per dose to $3.10. That fractional reduction will save millions of dollars, but it is not enough say campaigners.

“Pfizer’s tiny price cut for the pneumococcal vaccine is inadequate. We need to see both Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline take bolder steps to reduce the price of this vaccine in developing countries so that more kids can be protected against pneumonia,” said Kate Elder, vaccines policy adviser for Doctors Without Border’s access campaign, in an interview with the Guardian.

Doctors Without Borders and others have campaigned for years on drug prices. Activists argue that lifesaving drugs are kept out of the hands of the people who need them most due to high costs charged by pharmaceutical companies. It is not an argument that has won over Gates.

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“This general thing where organizations come out and say, ‘hey, why don’t vaccines cost zero?’ – all that does is that you have some pharma companies that choose never to do medicines for poor countries because they know that this always just becomes a source of criticism,” said Gates to the Guardian. “So they don’t do any R&D [research and development]on any product that would help poor countries. Then they’re not criticized at all because they don’t have anything that these people are saying they should price at zero.”

Measles outbreak at Disneyland

Disneyland (Credit: Tom Bricker/flickr)

Disneyland (Credit: Tom Bricker/flickr)

Why all the to-do about vaccines? Because they protect people, especially children, against diseases. The outbreak of measles in Disneyland illustrates that rather well. New data from California indicate there are at least 73 measles cases, with 50 of them linked to the theme park.

It all started when a person infected by measles visited Disneyland in the middle of December. A handful of unvaccinated children were exposed to and contracted measles. It spread to others and sparked a renewed national debate over vaccines.

At the crux of the conversation is the danger posed when parents do not vaccinate their children. There are three dangers posed by the decision. First, unvaccinated children are at risk of contracting a preventable disease. Second, the then-infected children can spread it to infants too young to receive vaccines, or to people who cannot receive the vaccines due to allergic reactions to their ingredients. Third, people who were vaccinated but do not benefit from its full protections are then vulnerable to the infection.

In the case of Disneyland, both adults and children were diagnosed with the measles. By having a vaccinated population protection is extended to infants and people who are not completely immune. A lack of vaccinations breaks down the overall protection.

No more polio in Syria

Iraqi refugee vaccinated against polio. (Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Caroline Gluck)

Iraqi refugee vaccinated against polio. (Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Caroline Gluck)

Finally, a bit of good news from Syria. That is something we do not hear all that often these days. The war-torn country saw the return of polio in late 2013. A breakdown in health systems and vaccine deliveries contributed to the problem. It infected 38 children and crossed over to Iraq where two children contracted polio.

The international community, led by the United Nations, sprung into action to launch a vaccine campaign. It experienced some obstacles along the way, but on Tuesday the World Health Organization announced no new cases of polio had been reported in one year. While Syria is still struggling with its civil war and the emerging Islamic State, it looks as if polio is no longer a major concern.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.