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A Step in the Right Direction for Children Around the World

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Last week, mothers in Mozambique walked up to 15 miles on behalf of their children. They weren't part of a walk-a-thon or a protest, but their footsteps sent an equally powerful message: they were walking so their children could receive lifesaving vaccines to protect them from the blindness, deafness, brain damage and death caused by measles.

While people in the U.S. may not realize it, measles remains one of the most highly infectious diseases on earth. These mothers knew their effort was worth it. In villages where the health facility is a mud-walled shack containing a chair and a cardboard box of supplies, a sick child doesn't stand much of a chance. Vaccines are a hedge against that fate. Instead of planning their children's funerals, mothers in Mozambique and around the world can plan for their future.

For nearly two decades, we served together in what has been called "the world's greatest deliberative body," the United States Senate. There were times when we agreed, and many more times when we differed. But as policymakers and parents, we have been united when it comes to the well-being of the world's most precious resource: its children.

All Americans, regardless of political affiliation, can agree that no child should ever die of a preventable, treatable illness simply because of where he or she is born. Yet each year, that is precisely what happens to millions of children in developing countries, unable to access medical treatments that we take for granted. Americans also realize that outbreaks overseas can mean spikes in infections here in the U.S., because in an increasingly connected world, germs don't need a passport, and don't respect borders.

Infectious diseases, in many ways like the tornadoes that have devastated American towns in recent weeks, strike with little warning and leave terrible damage in their wake. Fortunately, we have life-saving vaccines to fight childhood death and disease. Their potential to save and improve the lives of children cannot be overstated.

Just ten years ago, measles killed nearly a million children each year. Today, thanks to a concerted vaccination effort by the international community, measles-related deaths in Africa have plunged more than 90%, and elimination of this scourge - for which no effective treatment exists - is on the horizon. Polio is another success story, with eradication a near-term prospect thanks to expanded immunization.

More progress is at hand. Many people are surprised to learn that the leading killers of children worldwide today are pneumonia and diarrhea. New vaccines that have dramatically reduced the incidence of those diseases here in the United States are ready to be rolled out in developing countries where they are needed the most. Unlike the measles vaccine, which is relatively simple to make for pennies a dose, these complex and innovative products cost more, but are still a tremendous bargain.

A proven funding mechanism exists to help deliver these new vaccines and others. Since its founding in 2000, the GAVI Alliance, a non-profit public-private partnership, has brought together donors, developing country governments, civil society, and private companies to finance vaccines for low-income countries. By pooling donor funds, it can procure vaccines more affordably, and by requiring recipient countries to help finance part of the cost, it builds in accountability.

And just like the new vaccines - which cost only a few dollars in exchange for a lifetime of protection - GAVI itself has been remarkably efficient. This was recently recognized by the British government. A comprehensive review of its foreign assistance spending concluded that funding for GAVI plays a critically important role in reducing childhood mortality, saving the lives of five million children in poverty-stricken communities around the world.

During his recent visit to London, President Obama issued a joint statement with Prime Minister David Cameron that highlighted GAVI's lifesaving accomplishments. With the continued engagement and support of donor countries, GAVI estimates that it could save four million more by 2015.

Vaccines save lives, and they save money. We know that times are tough here at home, but vaccines are a smart investment. The United States has been a steadfast supporter of GAVI since its establishment, and we are confident that the US government will continue this support when world leaders hold a pledging conference in London on June 13.

Mothers in Mozambique know about the power of vaccines and are willing to walk miles to get them. We should be willing to take the necessary steps here in the U.S. to make them easier to access. The healthy futures of millions of children depend on it.

Christopher Dodd represented Connecticut in the United States Senate from 1981 to 2011. He is the Chairman and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America. Robert Bennett represented Utah in the United States Senate from 1993 to 2011. He is the chairman of The Bennett Consulting Group, a Resident Scholar at the Hinckley Institute of Politics, and a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Center. Follow him on Twitter @BennettDC