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Crowds draw towards the schools and churches of little villages across Central African Republic (CAR).
Mothers wait with their children, lined up on wooden benches. Everyone is quiet – surprisingly quiet for people mostly under-six years-old.
But the closer the children get to the nurses, the more their curiosity morphs into terror.
Open the mouth for the oral polio vaccine.
Prepare one leg for the pentavalent.
The other one for the pneumonia vaccine.
Then they’re done. The children are left wide-eyed, their cheeks wet from tears.
Amongst the screams, some mothers laugh.
It’s hard to see your kids cry, but they know it’s better to struggle with a healthy child trying to escape the needle, than to have to carry a limp, feverish child for a few hours walk to the nearest affordable clinic instead.
“If my children get sick, I don’t know what to do apart from give them paracetamol”, says Carole Mbamanza, a mother from CAR. “Here in my village’s health centre, we have to pay up to US$6 for a consultation and I can’t afford it.
“So instead, I go to the (MSF-supported) Yongofongo health centre where it is free.
“But it’s not easy to walk 10 kilometres, for about two hours, carrying a sick child!”
This is a reality that many parents deal with in the CAR.
Health centres are few and far between, they are often poorly stocked and staffed, and their limited services are generally unaffordable.
In CAR, even more than in the rest of the world, one had better not fall sick.
Even before the latest health crisis, vaccination coverage was already very low at an estimated 40 percent. This meant high childhood mortality due to easily preventable diseases.
The 2013-2014 conflict killed thousands and forced up to a quarter of the entire population to flee their homes, going on to disprupt an already barely functioning health system.
All state functions ground to a halt, including routine vaccination programs, making an already bad situation worse.
In Bangassou, the main city of Mbomou province, respiratory infections are the third cause of mortality among children, after malaria and neonatal deaths.
But during the dry season, when malaria cases wane, respiratory illnesses jump to the top as the deadliest disease for the youngest.
To boost children’s protection, MSF organised catch-up vaccination campaigns in most of its 17 projects across the country for the under-six-year olds, who, for the most part, did not get any routine shots.
20,000 children in Bangassou, and over 100,000 across the country received vaccination against nine potentially deadly diseases, including pneumonia.
Around the world, pneumonia is the number one killer of children under age five.
It can be a parent’s worst nightmare, which Blanche Foutcho, a mother from CAR, knows all too well.
“My nine-month old son, Jésuré, was sick two months ago,” she says. “He started breathing strangely, very quickly.
“We were very worried, and we walked two hours to reach the clinic in Yongofongo, where it’s free.
“From there, we were transferred to Bangassou, and Jésuré was hospitalised for a week.
“Now he’s doing better, but he still gasps for air when he cries.”
When a country's health facilities collapse due to conflict, humanitarian organisations can provide some relief by responding to healthcare needs.
We can help parents, like Blanche, avoid this nightmare by providing access to the pneumonia vaccine.
But vaccinating kids living in crisis-affected countries can be challenging when the price of the pneumonia vaccine is too high for governments and humanitarian organisations to afford.
Let's not let our children go unprotected. We need to give all kids A Fair Shot.
We need Pfizer & GSK to lower the price of the pneumonia vaccine to $5 per child for all developing countries, and all humanitarian organisations.
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