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A Special Relationship to Save Lives

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This is a joint post with Aaron Oxley.

This week during his first official state visit to the United Kingdom, President Barack Obama will meet with Prime Minister David Cameron to discuss pressing issues faced by the allies. While the global economy, the NATO mission in Libya and the war in Afghanistan will figure prominently in the agenda, the two leaders are expected to discuss an issue less likely to be in the headlines: a plan to save over 4 million lives by providing vaccines to the children who need them most.

Each year about 8.8 million children in developing countries die from mostly preventable and treatable conditions. Nearly 40 percent of those deaths are from two common diseases: pneumonia and diarrhea. Recently developed vaccines can prevent the two main causes of these afflictions -- pneumococcal disease and rotavirus -- but they are not yet widely available where they are most needed. Of the 129 million babies born in 2008, only 7 percent received the pneumococcal vaccine, and only 8 percent received the rotavirus vaccine.

The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, or GAVI Alliance, is a public-private partnership dedicated to protecting children from vaccine-preventable diseases. GAVI has a plan to close this alarming gap. On June 13, the UK will host a pledging conference where donors will be asked to fund this plan.

Both governments seem confident that GAVI is a good investment. In the UK's Multilateral Aid Review -- an exhaustive examination of 43 international organizations -- GAVI was one of just nine that had a "proven track record of delivering excellent results." U.S. aid chief Dr. Rajiv Shah recently called his agency's founding contribution to GAVI "one of the best lifesaving investments USAID has ever made."

Words need to be backed up with deeds. The UK is expected to greatly increase its contribution to GAVI, and it is rumored that Prime Minister David Cameron will personally open the pledging conference. In the U.S., advocates and members of Congress have asked the Obama Administration to pledge $450 million over three years to the effort.

These investments can be made with confidence. Vaccines are one of the "best buys" in global public health, providing a lifetime of protection against disease. Since its founding in 2000, GAVI has supported the immunization of nearly 300 million children, and is estimated to have prevented five million deaths. With full funding between now and 2015, GAVI can immunize an additional 240 million children against pneumococcal disease, rotavirus and other life-threatening conditions. This would save an estimated 4.2 million lives.

This is a challenge worthy of the lofty rhetoric often afforded the Anglo-American alliance. Churchill famously called it the "special relationship," and it has endured across decades and different political parties because it's about more than mutual interests or convenient alliances; it's about shared values. The GAVI Alliance pledging conference is a unique opportunity to put the US-UK partnership to work for an unambiguously just cause, and can serve as a model for future cooperation to tackle other global poverty challenges. Showing leadership on saving children's lives will create an opportunity for other nations to join in this challenge -- and it must be taken.

Joanne Carter is the Executive Director of RESULTS and RESULTS Educational Fund in the US. Aaron Oxley is the Executive Director of RESULTS in the UK.