Sohna Kebbeh Jammeh is a happy and healthy toddler growing up in The Gambia. Her pink dress and colorful hair clips complement the brightness behind her eyes. She holds a bag of animal crackers. Some land in her mouth, others on the floor. Laughing, her mother, Binta Jammeh, scoops up the fallen crackers and throws them in the waste basket. It’s a fleeting moment—but one full of light-hearted affection and markedly free of worry.
Sohna is nearly two years old and the youngest of five children. Even in times of health, managing the family has been no small feat for Mrs. Jammeh and her husband. But when their eldest daughter began suffering from recurrent pneumonia at age five, parenting turned into a scary balancing act that stretched the family to its limits.
By the time Sohna was born, Mrs. Jammeh had had enough. She would do everything in her power to protect her newest baby from pneumonia.
A decision to participate in a pneumococcal vaccine trial
Sohna, luckily, has not had pneumonia. She’s never had the chest indrawing, high fever, and convulsions that her eldest sister endured on and off for nearly nine years. Most importantly, her mother has never had to wonder if Sohna’s life may be slipping away—peace of mind worth going to great lengths to preserve.
“I will do my level best so that my family can be strong tomorrow,” Mrs. Jammeh asserts. “We mothers do not like to see our children sick. The best thing to help protect the child is immunization—good health with good vaccines.”
When Mrs. Jammeh learned that the MRC Unit The Gambia (MRCG) was recruiting for a clinical trial of a new vaccine candidate designed to prevent the most common cause of severe childhood pneumonia—the pneumococcus—she was quick to enroll Sohna. The pneumococcus can also cause deadly and disabling infections like meningitis and sepsis.
The possibility of contributing to progress against pneumonia, which had robbed her eldest daughter of so many healthy days, was motivation enough for the decision to enroll. But, MRCG’s respected reputation for high quality studies and participant care made the prospect even more appealing.
In the trial, participants were randomly grouped to receive either the new pneumococcal vaccine candidate or a licensed pneumococcal vaccine. All received the complete set of other recommended routine childhood immunizations that they would normally get in the Gambian schedule. At the end of the study, the group that got the candidate vaccine was also offered a dose of the proven licensed pneumococcal vaccine. Sohna and the other participants also received close monitoring and medical care throughout the duration of the study.
Mrs. Jammeh recalls that Sohna received her vaccinations on the appropriate day and time and was in good health after every vaccination. Study staff even came to their home, sometimes twice a day, to check on Sohna’s well-being. They were very encouraging—playing with Sohna and her siblings and making the experience fun.
Even Mrs. Jammeh learned something new. Though already well-versed about pneumonia, she became aware of pneumococcus and other causes of pneumonia for the first time during the trial—knowledge to hopefully aid her efforts to safeguard her children in the future. Overall, the experience was so positive that Mrs. Jammeh says she’d gladly join another trial if asked.
The contrast of life with and without pneumonia
No mother should have to watch helplessly as her child struggles for breath, but that was Mrs. Jammeh’s reality for many years. Now 18 years old, her eldest daughter is pneumonia-free and one of the lucky ones to have survived. Some are not so lucky.
The situation today is very different from when the Jammehs were first starting their family. Vaccines against the major causes of pneumonia (like the pneumococcus and Haemophilus influenzae type b) are now available in The Gambia. Information is becoming more obtainable about other pneumonia prevention and treatment measures as well, like clean air, oxygen therapy, antibiotics, good nutrition, handwashing, and exclusive breastfeeding. Greater attention is also being paid to strategies that tackle pneumonia and diarrhea together—the world’s #1 and #2 infectious killers of children before five years of age, respectively. MRCG is working on diarrhea too.
As for Sohna, her trial participation offered her not only meticulous care, but a chance to contribute to progress towards pneumonia prevention that could benefit other children in the future. For these same reasons, clinical vaccine trials are widely embraced by many families in The Gambia.
Progress has been significant, but we’re not yet at the finish line. Pneumonia is still the top cause of child deaths. More work is needed to ensure equitable and sustainable access to prevention and treatment tools, regardless of where one lives. And, additional vaccines still need to be developed and tested to address remaining challenges.
Nevertheless, Sohna’s good health has Mrs. Jammeh worrying less and envisioning a hopeful future free of pneumonia. And it shows. Without the underlying stress of years past, mother and daughter are free to enjoy the moment—even to laugh together at some scattered animal crackers on the ground.
The MRC Unit The Gambia has been a longstanding PATH partner to advance health goals against a number of diseases, including the pneumococcus, meningitis, malaria, and others.
Want to learn more about vaccines against pneumococcal disease and how PATH’s work fits in? Read the National Geographic article “Here’s Why Vaccines Are So Crucial.”
- Lauren Newhouse is a senior communications officer with PATH’s Center for Vaccine Innovation and Access.