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LDS Church
Sister Bonnie Parkin kisses child in Mozambique.

An African mother walks along a dirt road, the dust flying up around a bundle she carries in her arms. She is headed for a vaccination clinic inside the nearby village and looks tired. When an American visitor asks to see her baby, she displays the child proudly.

The infant is only a day old.

Yet the child's mother — without the help of modern hospital delivery teams, sterile sutures or a post-delivery recovery room — is walking miles to the clinic, determined not to let her baby become yet another death statistic on a continent whose vastness is dwarfed only by its poverty.

Bonnie Parkin prays that such heroic efforts will be rewarded. As general president of the LDS Church's Relief Society, she encountered that woman on a road in Mozambique this week, there to observe administration of life-saving measles and polio vaccines, along with vitamin A, to thousands of children. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has partnered with the American Red Cross and other organizations, donating $3 million toward the measles vaccination effort.

Sister Parkin is seeing the campaign unfold firsthand, working as a volunteer, visiting clinics and orphanages. She was originally scheduled to go with American Red Cross president and CEO Marsha Evans, but Evans had to scrap her travel plans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

While Sister Parkin's travels will not evoke America's collective conscience or make national headlines like the hurricane's devastation has, she's seeing the determination to stem the tide of a silent tsunami that kills more people each year than Katrina and the Asian tsunami combined.

More than 700,000 children have died annually in recent years from measles around the world. Nearly half of them live in Africa. At less than $1 per child to vaccinate, the disease remains the world's leading vaccine-preventable childhood killer.

The Measles Initiative partnership — encompassing the United Nations Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, United Nations Children's Fund, World Health Organization and Pan American Health Organization in addition to the Red Cross and LDS Church — is designed to immunize 200 million children and prevent 1.2 million deaths from measles over the next five years.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday, Sister Parkin told the Deseret Morning News of seeing mothers with babies strapped to their backs and leading a child in each hand in the long lines outside each clinic, including the mother with the newborn. Emotion filled her voice.

"It was unbelievable, her commitment to make sure her children were vaccinated. . ." she said, her voice trailing off for a moment.

She's watched mothers braid the hair of their little children after dressing them in "probably the nicest thing they own to come and get a vaccination."

During the next 10 days, more than 7 million children in Mozambique, ages 9 months to 15 years, will be vaccinated for measles, receiving "the jab, as they call it," along with drops of polio vaccine and vitamin A administered orally. Huge banners hang across both village trails and city streets, announcing the time and place. LDS youths in local congregations have helped publicize the public health initiative, going from one isolated door to the next, spreading the word in rural areas far beyond the villages and towns.

"We have 16 branches (of the church) here. The volunteers have gone door to door and are helping with crowd control," she said.

On Sunday, Sister Parkin and her party attended a small LDS branch, where members performed a skit they had been offering in area villages about the importance of vaccinating the children.

"They dressed up, sang songs and made rhymes" of the message.

Many are simply grateful to have a purpose in volunteering to help inform villagers, she said.

"There's so much unemployment here. For these people to even understand what it means to volunteer is just exciting," she said.

She believes they have taken LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley's advice to " 'Forget yourself and go to work.' The blessing of having something to do has brought joy."

Olympic gold medalist Maria Lurdes Mutola (800 meters, 2000 Games) has joined the publicity campaign, Sister Parkin said, lending her name, image and encouragement to the effort.

"She has been on posters everywhere with a little Mozambique child, running on a track. She's kind of the idol for young women in Mozambique — 34 years old and still running and just incredible," she said.

Mozambique is a nation of nearly 20 million people, only 40 percent of whom have access to clean water, Sister Parkin said. HIV, measles, malaria and polio are the major health challenges, and the Measles Initiative is addressing two of the four. In the meantime, 1.2 million children live in orphanages, many of their families devastated by a disease that has become of greater concern to health officials across Africa than anything else: AIDS.

Adoption is frowned upon inside the country, she said, as cultural norms view it as something approaching child trafficking. After visiting the Padre Andre orphanage in Maputo, she was impressed that the older children care for the younger ones, doing their best to form their own version of families.

"There are tons of orphans here and . . . orphanages everywhere," she said.

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