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Chizoba Wonodi Fights for Pneumonia Vaccinations

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You know about pneumonia, that dreaded respiratory disease symptomized by a racking cough and breathing difficulties. It's horrible to get and even worse for your children to get. You'd probably not be surprised to know it's the number one killer of children under five in the world, unless you read this post about Tracey Clark, who is passionate about supporting pneumonia vaccinations. You may or may not have heard about World Pneumonia Day, an annual forum held every November for the world to stand together and demand action in the fight against pneumonia. But chances are that you haven't heard about Chizoba Wonodi. She is a mother, like you and me, who has made it her cause and her passion to prevent child deaths from pneumonia in Nigeria, her home country.

Credit: Chisom

Nigeria, in case you didn't know, is the most populous country in Africa, and has a relatively thriving economy. However, more than 140,000 children under the age of five die every year from pneumonia in Nigeria, according to 2010 estimates. This is the highest number of child deaths of any country in Africa and the second highest in the world. You would think, being aware of this, that administrators and parents would work harder to ensure that more children are vaccinated every year, since it can, in fact, be prevented with a simple vaccination. Yet more than a million children every year still do not get vaccinated, according to Chizoba. She says, "That's just not acceptable. I work to get vaccines to the tops of everyone's minds."

She is, in fact, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She currently leads the Johns Hopkins’ International Vaccine Access Center’s immunization support efforts in Nigeria. She works to provide technical assistance to the government of Nigeria on new and routine vaccine programs, performs routine immunization program assessments, builds coalitions for better health financing, and manages market research projects. Working with political leaders, she says, is important not only because of their positions of power, but also because through them, they can reach other groups as well.

There are a variety of barriers to optimal immunization rates, though. Health care and transportation there are expensive, says Chizoba. Although vaccines are provided for free, many Nigerian moms, often so busy just making ends meet and putting food on the table, don't realize the importance of vaccinations or don't have the means to make the trip. Widespread awareness, driven by top-level government leaders down through their constituents to average citizens, is what is needed to truly end this epidemic of inaction, so that's what Chizoba strives tirelessly to create. "That's really my passion. I'm trying to make a difference by providing the data [that is needed to] increase awareness." This passion, in fact, drove Chizoba to rally other partners, including the Nigerian government, to organize the first-ever National Vaccine Summit in April.  By bringing people together to have a serious conversation on what needs to be done to raise immunization rates, Chizoba "hopes the country has begun the long road to vaccine protection for every child."

In her many travels to accomplish that mission, she has continually been amazed by the dedication of the health care professionals and support staff. They provide the vaccinations and treat those who contract the disease, often despite lack of space or sufficient funding. There was the woman who had been cooking for a health care team in rural Malawi, for instance, free-of-charge for years, so that vaccinations could be provided. Devastating stories of loss also haunt her, like that of the mother who had to sell everything she had to get her child treated for pneumonia, even though that child still died.

There are hard stories and hard statistics to hear about pneumonia in Nigeria, but knowledgeable and dedicated people like Chizoba are fighting to prevent them. So what could you, an ordinary North American mom, do if you wanted to help Chizoba in her fight? Two things, she says: support the GAVI Alliance, which is a public-private partnership focused on saving children's lives and protecting people's health by increasing access to immunizations in poor countries, and strive to make one-on-one connections through social media with women in Africa. This fight can be won.

 What are other organizations or groups who are raising awareness for pneumonia vaccinations?

Feature photo courtesy of Flickr.

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