Not too long ago, we (Global Citizens) sat down with Dr. Orin Levine Director of Vaccine Delivery at the Gates Foundation.
Dr. Levine is a leading expert in the field and the role that he plays in helping to get kids immunized around over the world is vital.
Below is a short Q&A where we discuss his passions, common barriers to world vaccination efforts, and what we as Global Citizens can do to help.
Q: Why do you care so passionately about vaccines and the work of the foundation?
A: It’s pretty simple. For me, vaccines are tools for social justice and that was what brought me to public health in the first place. At the Foundation, if you walk in the building you can’t miss it, it’s written on the wall, ‘We believe all lives have equal value.’ So vaccines that protect every kid, rich or poor, and eliminate that risk of disease, those are great tools for social justice for helping make sure that all lives have equal value.
Q: What do you see is the greatest strength success in immunization today?
A: The strength of immunizations is the system it’s built is it’s able to scale rapidly, new vaccines that protect people against important diseases. One of the great achievements of the last 15 years and primarily through the work of the Gavi Alliance is that we’ve now built off of that system to add new vaccines. We’re protecting women and children now against more diseases than ever before by using the system that was built in the 90’s. That’s a real success and real strength of global immunizations.
Q: What do you see as the greatest challenge?
A: Well, I think that the biggest challenges really remain in making sure we get every child. Our success is that we can rapidly scale to say 75-80% of all the world’s children and that has a big impact and saves a lot of lives. But many of the children and women who are at greatest risk of these diseases live in the last mile, in the most remote places. So our biggest challenge is to extend now protection to everyone, everywhere.
Q: Why aren’t all vaccines 100% effective?
A: Well, vaccines are very, very safe and very, very effective. It’s true that many of the vaccines are a little less than 100% effective and that’s just one of the challenges of trying to make a vaccine.
Q: As Global Citizens, what can we each do daily to advocate for vaccine accessibility and delivery?
A: One of the most important things that we can do each and every one of us is make sure that everyone is really aware of the importance that vaccines play in protecting women and children every day. Make sure people know that they’re safe and effective. And the other thing they can do is make sure that the organizations that make a big difference in the world for children and immunizations remain supported. Gavi Alliance is a really important one, for example. This is an alliance that makes vaccines available to children in the poorest countries around the world. It’s an organization that needs our support right now. It has an ambitious agenda for the next five years and it’s looking for funding to make sure that it can give children access to those vaccines. So support the Gavi Alliance is one thing that everyone can do.
Q: If you had one personal story from your career thus far that had a monumental impact on you, what would that be?
A: Well I think that one of the points at which I really understood the power of vaccines, if you will, happened 20 years ago. I was just thinking about this today, because it was just about exactly 20 years ago. As an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control, I was sent to Goma Zaire. You might remember that after Rwanda’s massive conflict, there was a big shift in refugees into Eastern Zaire and I went as part of a team there. I was amazed when I got to the refugee camps children and people were dying at a rate that was just staggering.