GENEVA Afghanistan's acting health minister will seek international funding on Tuesday for immunization, which she sees as key to reducing child mortality in a country where the average life expectancy is only 48 years.
Dr. Suraya Dalil, in an interview with Reuters in Geneva before holding talks with Bill Gates at the World Health Organization (WHO), recalled her own cousin in Kabul dying more than 30 years ago as a young boy from measles.
"We will ask for support in areas that are working, that are relevant, successful programs in Afghanistan, for example immunization," Dalil said.
"As a mother of 3 children, I know the value of immunization. I lost my cousin from measles. I don't want my children to ask me the same question as I asked my Mom: 'why?'"
The Microsoft founder and philanthropist, whose Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $10 billion for vaccines, urged the WHO's 193 health ministers in a keynote address on Tuesday to make vaccines their top priority.
Afghanistan, whose government is fighting a worsening insurgency that has dragged on for nearly a decade since the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Taliban, is also plagued by poverty, malnutrition and corruption.
The government and foreign donors spend barely $10 a person on health, leaving many families struggling to afford doctors and drug care.
One Afghan child in five still dies before his or her 5th birthday -- the world's second highest rate of child mortality, tied with the Democratic Republic of Congo just behind Chad, according to a WHO report issued last week.
A decade ago, one Afghan child in four did not live to see his or her 5th birthday, according to Dalil.
The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), a partnership of charities, governments and drug companies, is holding a pledging conference in London in June to raise an additional $3.7 billion for its 2011-2015 program to immunize 243 million children.
Afghanistan plans to approach the alliance this year for funding for two vaccines -- against pneumococcal pneumonia and rotavirus diarrhea, which together account for 57 percent of deaths of Afghan children under age 5, Dalil said.
"Tens of thousands of lives will be saved... The government of Afghanistan will co-finance this. That will show our political commitment," she said. "We will target pneumococcal pneumonia first, we will go to GAVI before the end of June."
GlaxoSmithKline and Merck Pneumo provide the rotavirus vaccine to GAVI, while GSK and Pfizer supply the pneumococcal vaccine, a GAVI spokeswoman said.
Gates was instrumental in establishing the Geneva-based GAVI that committed nearly $6 billion for immunization and other programs in the poorest countries by the end of 2010.
"I firmly believe that immunization is the most cost-effective public health intervention to reduce under-five mortality and to reach Millennium Development Goal 4," Dalil said, referring to an ambitious UN goal to reduce under-five mortality by two-thirds between 1990 and 2015.
Nearly 83 percent of Afghan children were vaccinated against three childhood diseases -- diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis -- in 2009, compared to just 31 percent in 2000, she said.
"Afghanistan has made remarkable gains in increasing immunization coverage over the past 10 years."
Dalil, who graduated from Kabul medical school and earned a masters in public health from Harvard University, believes in the value of education in her country, where the Taliban banned girls from school and insecurity still keeps some from attending.
"We cannot have a prosperous Afghanistan until women have access to health care and education to ensure they participate in the development of society," the 42-year-old said.