The power of vaccines is evident around the world, but nowhere will it be more so than in the over 30 developing countries that will begin -- for the first time -- to immunize their children with new rotavirus and pneumococcal vaccines over the next year and a half -- vaccines against the most common forms of severe diarrhea and pneumonia, the largest killers of children in these countries.
In large part thanks to widespread immunization, the number of young children dying each year has declined significantly, from approximately 14 million in 1979 to slightly less than eight million in 2010. This number could drop even further -- to about five million by 2020 -- if donors, the global health community and developing countries themselves stay focused on immunization.
This, of course, is a tough challenge for donor governments who are facing very real and very serious budget deficits. Yet all that is being asked is that we provide children who happen to have been born in poverty access to life saving vaccines that all of our children routinely receive.
Republicans and Democrats have an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate their continued cooperation on cost-effective health solutions for poorer nations that yield real results. Leaders on both sides of the congressional aisle have carried the torch. The United States' support for global health has leveraged not only other public donor support, but private support from the Gates Foundation, United Nations Foundation, corporate partners and others.
Congressional leadership can continue the decade-long, bipartisan collaboration by championing global immunization. Literally millions of people are alive and healthy today thanks to vaccines.
And so much more can be done. In addition to the new vaccines against pneumococcal disease and rotavirus, there are existing vaccines which have enormous impact. Polio can be eradicated. Measles is under attack, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. New meningitis A vaccines are highly effective and affordable and a future malaria vaccine is showing promise.
The return on investment in global health is tremendous, and the biggest bang for the buck comes from vaccines. Vaccines are among the most successful and cost-effective health investments in history. For just a few dollars a dose, vaccines save lives and help reduce poverty. Unlike medical treatment, they provide a lifetime of protection from deadly and debilitating disease. They are safe and effective. They cut healthcare and treatment costs, reduce the number of hospital visits and ensure healthier children, families and communities. Investments in immunization yield a rate of return on a par with educating our children -- and higher than nearly any other development intervention.
For just a small percentage of the total foreign assistance program, which in itself makes up just one percent of the federal budget, the U.S. can lead a transformation in child health and survival around the world.
Follow Seth Berkley, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/GaviSeth