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Robert Bennett: Poverty, optimism pepper Mozambique

Published: Monday, May 30 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Recently, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave millions to the United Nations Foundation for the purpose of vaccinating children in poor countries. Along with former Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, I agreed to serve as co-chairman of the effort and have just returned from my first experience with it in Mozambique, one of the three poorest countries in the world.

Whether in the cities or the countryside, a primary method of transport in Mozambique is walking. When I say transport, I include the transportation of goods. It is common to see people — usually women — with large bundles of a wide variety of goods, including large containers of water, on their heads, walking patiently along the side of the highway. They are seemingly oblivious to the relatively few cars and trucks that whiz by them.

We were there because of measles. Virtually unknown in the United States, the disease kills millions in the rest of the world every year. Our goal was to vaccinate 3.6 million children — roughly 17% of the population — in a period of five days. That would be an enormous task for any country, let alone one as poor as Mozambique, and it could not be accomplished without the help of a number of private organizations. Fortunately, there were many such groups present there last week, including, to my delight, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Using Bill Gates' money, the UN Foundation paid for the vaccines, with further support from UNICEF and the World Health Organization.

In addition to professional staff, volunteers were recruited by the Mozambique Ministry of Health — that's where groups like the LDS Church came in — and local officials oversaw the effort to notify every mother in the country that the campaign was going forward.

Other volunteers were trained to adminsister the vaccine under the direction of health care professionals, and careful attention was paid to recording an accurate tally of children protected. In addition to measles vaccine, Vitamin A was also given to each child to fortify the immune system against other diseases.

Observers from medical groups including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Red Cross evaluated how well the program was carried out. They told me that Mozambique was doing very well compared with with other programs they had seen. There was top level governmental support; the Prime Minister spoke at the kickoff event, where he warmly thanked all involved for their willingness to come to his country and help its children survive.

That is my offical report. Now, for some unofficial observations.

Not that long ago, Mozambique was racked by a vicious civil war that lasted 20 years. Compared with those times, its citizens believe that they have made great strides forward and have a sense of hope for their future. Poverty can be relative, and optimism can contribute to progress.

Some volunteers wanted to know how much they would be paid before they would agree to help. If this effort can teach them the full concept of volunteerism, that will be as important as giving them vaccine.

Finally, the world is forever connected. With jet airplanes circling the world, a disease can migrate anywhere; there have been recent cases of measles in the United States after decades in which there were none. When we help others, we help ourselves as well.

Humanitarian efforts are worth it.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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