Q&A: Tacoma man part of international organization that saves lives with vaccinations

Alan Brooks left behind work in Geneva, Switzerland, to come back to Tacoma for the holidays. But his passion for saving lives followed him home.

Brooks, director for health systems and immunization strengthening for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), graduated from Stadium High School in 1988. He spent time as a Rotary exchange student in Sweden before attending Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Washington for nursing.

After earning his degree at UW in 1994, Brooks wanted to help improve basic health care services around the world. Eventually, that landed him with GAVI.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledged $750 million in January 2000, providing the seed money to launch GAVI. The alliance brings together UN agencies, governments, the vaccine industry, the private sector and many other organizations to improve childhood immunization in poor countries. It also accelerates access to vaccines that Brooks says wealthy countries take for granted.

“I had the good fortune to be able to be part of its early evolution and development,” he told The News Tribune this week.

GAVI estimates that these vaccinations efforts have prevented six million deaths thus far. Brooks said the organization hopes to reach an additional 300 million children between 2016 and 2020. That would amount to about five to six million more lives saved, he said.

Brooks estimates that the global economic benefit from the work GAVI does amounts between $80 billion and $100 billion.

“Until you have healthy people, it’s hard for societies to evolve,” he said. “These pieces are all interconnected.”

To achieve that goal, GAVI is looking to raise $7.5 billion for that four-year period. Brooks said the organization has already raised half that amount. He anticipates the other half will be raised at a conference in Germany at the end of January.

Brooks took a break from holiday family time to talk to The News Tribune about his organization’s work abroad.

Question: Why do you think our readers should care about vaccinating children in poor countries?

Answer: Two reasons: About 1.5 million kids will die of vaccine-preventable diseases. These are mostly diseases that we’ve put behind us, yet they’re killing people all over the world. … For me, that’s not OK. We’ve shown that we can save those lives. It isn’t something that’s foreign. The second reason: It’s an effort that has a very strong connection to this area, very strong local influences. It something we should be proud of.

Q: GAVI appears to have made progress with immunization efforts around the world since it was founded in 2000. What do you think makes GAVI’s approach successful?

A: It’s really bringing together the resources and the know-how together with the ownership and the leadership that we’re able to support in individual countries. Some of the poorest countries in the world are putting money on the table … Countries are saying they want to own this, they are saying this is something they value. They’ve collectively contributed $1.2 billion of their own funds to pool with resources from the U.S., U.K., Norway and many other countries. It brings together the strengths of many different entities to achieve the things they want to achieve at a very large scale.

Q: What diseases or vaccines are the main focus at GAVI right now? Do those priorities shift or evolve over time?

A: The main focus includes the pneumococcal vaccine (prevents pneumonia and meningitis); rotavirus vaccine (prevents diarrhea); a five-in-one vaccine that covers diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, and hib; and the HPV vaccine. If you go back to before GAVI’s existence, those vaccines would be available only to children in developing rich countries. Now, the vaccinations are available simultaneously in rich and developing countries. It equalized access to those vaccines.

Q: What would you say to vaccination skeptics who believe immunizations do more harm than good?

A: This is about overwhelming data and science and the millions of lives that have been saved from vaccines. I do understand that everyone wants to reflect on each situation for their own children, but by immunizing your child you’re not only protecting them from these diseases, but you’re protecting your neighbor.

Q: How many countries does GAVI have a presence in right now?

A: As an alliance we work with 73 countries, in parallel, day in and day out. These are all countries that have a gross national income per capita of $1,570 per year or less (in 2014. The number is adjusted each year for inflation). The countries are located in Eastern Europe, Africa and many in Asia. ... Places where, for example, many people live on $1 or $2 per day.

Q: How concerned should people be about Ebola and has the severity of the problem eased at all overseas?

A: I don’t think people here should be concerned about Ebola. We’ve seen that cases in the United States have been taken care of, and there’s no reason to be afraid. Within the (Western African) countries that are most affected, the disease is still a massive concern. While it’s out of the news, it’s going to take years for these countries to recover from this. GAVI is going to be a part of that recovery.