Vice President Joe Biden has pledged to close the “vaccination gap” with poorer nations. In a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday, Biden said the U.S. would increase its commitment to global health by contributing $6 billion over three years for international immunization programs and other efforts aimed at preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases.
“I believe this is a moral calling for our country,” Biden said. “The commitments I am making today will save an estimated 5 million lives by scaling up existing life-saving interventions and beginning new ones to tackle diseases that most outrage us — like providing 400 million vaccines over the next five years to children who need them.”
The money is being steered to several longstanding global health initiatives, including the GAVI Alliance, which works with developing countries to increase access to immunizations for children. Another partner, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS Tuberculosis and Malaria, will receive an additional $1 billion from the U.S. over five years.
Biden cited GAVI’s efforts to immunize children against polio, which have reduced its incidence to just 650 cases last year compared to 350,000 in 1988. But he warned that the program remains “under siege by extremists who would rather prevent these kids — some of them little more than infants — from receiving lifesaving vaccines.”
The problem is particularly acute in Nigeria, where 84 percent of children are immunized but vaccination teams have come under attack from the violent group Boko Haram. “This group has killed more than 670 health workers since 2012,” Biden said.
According to reports , Boko Haram began assassinating polio vaccinators in Nigeria’s northern states in July 2013. As a result, the country recorded 58 new cases of polio in 2014, more than any other country in the world.
Having failed to stop vaccinations within Nigeria through violence and intimidation, Boko Haram appears to be expanding its campaign beyond its shores. “To meet this challenge, we are working with governments and local leaders to fortify surveillance and security around high-risk areas,” Biden said. “We launched a new partnership with Nigeria last week that will help provide technology upgrades and better coordination on the ground.”
Biden called on international donors to do their part to fund similar initiatives, saying: “It is time for us to stop talking about how we will fund the things that save these lives and actually start funding them.”
In his speech, Biden noted that he is not alone in calling for a redoubling of efforts against infectious diseases. “At this very moment, American companies are working with scientists at universities and pharmaceutical giants to develop life-saving vaccines and treatments,” he said. “Private industry is leaning in and governments are increasing resources to avoid the avoidable — the ripple effect of just one preventable disease outbreak can threaten economic growth, can threaten stability. It can affect investment and tourism as we saw with Ebola. We know that because it happened to us.”
Biden noted that the U.S. Congress has begun to take note of global health funding as well, citing recent bipartisan support for initiatives like the PEPFAR program to combat AIDS and the Global Health Security Act , which authorizes increased efforts for preventing epidemics at their source rather than merely responding to them after they’ve taken hold.
Biden’s announcement comes at a time when some in Congress and the White House have proposed sharp cuts to foreign aid, including deep reductions for international health programs . President Obama has threatened to veto proposals that would decrease funding for these initiatives below fiscal year 2015 levels.
The Vice President made his remarks at the Munich Security Conference where he shared the stage with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Council President Donald Tusk among others in an annual meeting that brings together heads of state and top government officials in Germany.
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