November 29, 2011 | The Editors

The power of vaccines

PATH President and CEO Chris Elias.
PATH President and CEO Chris Elias. Photo: PATH/Gabe Bynczycki.

Early in my career, right after my medical training, I worked in the pediatric ward of a hospital for refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border. On any given day, we had a couple hundred kids under our care. They came with the problems that are still the most common causes of illness and death for children in poor countries: pneumonia, diarrheal disease, and malaria.

The expatriate medical staff couldn’t stay in the camp after dark for security reasons. So every night as I drove away from the hospital, I’d think about the kids I’d seen that day. I remember worrying especially about the children who had pneumonia. We’d give them antibiotics, but pneumonia is tricky, and it moves fast. By the time I returned the next morning, these children often would be very, very sick. Not only that, they’d be at risk of developing other illnesses caused by their infection, including meningitis, a very serious inflammation of the brain.

Something’s changed: vaccines

Some 25 years later, pneumonia still threatens the lives and well-being of millions of children. But something’s changed since I worked in that refugee hospital: vaccines now prevent many causes of pneumonia. One formerly common cause, Haemophilus influenzae type b, can be prevented by a very effective and affordable vaccine that’s already been introduced in many of the poorest countries. A new pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, which is just beginning to find its way to children in the developing world, holds the promise of saving millions of kids from suffering and death.

How important are vaccines? Watch our new video.

The same thing is true for diarrheal disease. As you can read in our special online feature, the Power of Vaccines, a vaccine against the most common cause of severe diarrheal disease in children has emptied Nicaragua’s once-crowded diarrhea wards in just five years.

And just last month we had encouraging initial results from a trial of the most advanced malaria vaccine candidate. We’re hopeful it will be ready and recommended for use by African babies and young children by 2015. Together with effective methods of controlling the spread of malaria, it may help control a centuries-old threat to life and health.

Protecting the next generation

On those mornings on the Cambodian border, when I checked on our small patients after a night away, I often feared for their survival. The tragedy of vaccine-preventable diseases, however, is not only the children who die. It’s how much even the survivors suffer, and how infection contributes to conditions that can affect the rest of their lives. The cycle of ill health is relentless: the first infection contributes to malnutrition, which makes children susceptible to the next infection, which worsens malnutrition.

Now, we’re breaking this cycle with a new set of tools against pneumonia, diarrheal disease, malaria, and other common causes of childhood illness and death. With our partners, PATH is working to expand the effectiveness of many different vaccines, as well as to produce the next generation of products that are affordable for poorer countries.

Infection and disease are relentless. So is PATH.

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