Meet Dr. Namala Mkopi. He’s a Tanzanian pediatrician and an advocate for an organization ONE is working hard to support: Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
He has years of experience in pediatric medicine, research, and community-based child health issues in Tanzania, where he’s also seen first-hand the amazing effects of vaccines. Recently, he was on a tour of the United States to speak in support of Gavi and I had a chance to sit down with him while he was here in DC.
During our conversation, we talked about some of the challenges of bringing vaccines to Tanzania (power outages!), the impact of vaccines (empty hospital rooms!) and how ONE members can help in these efforts (by calling the White House – see below!).
You’ve worked on a lot of campaigns, from diarrhea to improving AIDS treatment for kids. What’s the biggest victory you’ve helped achieve?
One of the things I was proud of was getting the pneumococcal vaccine registered in Tanzania. Registration efforts had gone on for about five years but it just never went through. I knew someone at Tanzania’s Food and Drug Authority where they were trying to get the vaccine registered, so I called him, and it turns out he was the guy who was supposed to see it through!
So I went to his office and explained the vaccine’s importance and talked about how this issue affects his kids. The guy had just never realized this issue was so important! He thought it was just business. And two weeks after the meeting, he called me and said it’s done! After 5 years of effort, it got registered in 2 weeks because he realized how important it was!
How has the child health landscape changed in Tanzania since you became a doctor?
The most significant change has actually happened over the past year because we launched the pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines. We have a ward in our national hospital for children with diarrheal diseases.
Before the vaccines, it’d be full of children, and by full I mean 3 kids in a bed, with some more on a mattress on the floor. Now, just a year later, you walk in and the ward has 5 kids, maybe 10. Sometimes you go in there and there’s not a single child. And you don’t see many deaths either because the healthcare workers can handle the few kids that come in. It’s not an overwhelming number.
That’s fantastic. What’s a major lesson you’ve learned from your experiences working on vaccines?
There was one particular night when I really realized these diseases can happen to anyone. I was asleep when the phone rang. I couldn’t comprehend what the woman calling was saying but she was crying, so I told her to meet me at the hospital.
We got there and she had a child who was limp and unresponsive. We rushed him to the emergency room. It turned out he was in shock because he had diarrhea and had lost so much water. And guess what, that lady was a colleague, a doctor.
These diseases can happen to anyone, and when my son was born, I knew he needed to be vaccinated. The rotavirus vaccine was not available in Tanzania, so I ordered it through a friend in Kenya. There were two doses.
After giving the first, I needed to wait 4 weeks to administer the second. But in that time, we had a horrible power cut and almost every day we had no power throughout the day. I bought a generator that ran for 6 hours a day so that I could keep the vaccine viable for my son. I told everyone not to open the fridge when the generator was off so it would stay cold and I could preserve the vaccine.
And I did it. And my son is fine. These vaccines work. As a parent, I am seeing it working. As a doctor, I am seeing it working. If we vaccinate our kids, we see good results.
Do you have any messages for ONE members who help advocate for Gavi?
Immunization shouldn’t be a matter of luck, or whether the kid is rich enough to receive it. All kids should receive the vaccine equitably and without discrimination so they can live their lives to the fullest.
I’m tired of seeing children die of things that can be prevented. Doctors don’t deserve to see that. Parents don’t deserve to see that. Vaccines give hope. Our policy makers have shown political will for vaccines. Now we need to make sure Gavi can play its part in vaccinating millions of kids and saving their lives.