25 May 2016

Kenya: Melinda Gates - Resistance to Vaccination in Kenya Makes Me Angry

Photo: Daily News
Tetanus Vaccines.
interview

At 12 minutes past 3pm on Tuesday, we are ushered into the room where Mrs Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Dr Chris Elias, President of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are.

The interview is marked for 40 minutes, because there is another delegation waiting to speak with her.

Mrs Gates, has been in this room for the better part of the day. According to her handlers, she has been meeting with different people -- including beneficiaries of her projects -- on the sidelines of the 4th Women Deliver Global Conference that ends on Thursday in Copenhagen, Denmark.

She is wearing a light blue suit and dark blue suede wedges, a silver watch on her left hand and two bangles on her right hand.

"Hello, my name is Melinda Gates," she introduces herself, in what is perhaps ordinary to her but profound to the recipient. "This is Melinda Gates". She completes it with a firm handshake.

"There are drinks here, feel free to pick what you like," Mrs Gates says walking towards a side table and pours herself Coca-Cola in a glass and fills it with ice cubes to the brim.

She sits across from me on the table with Mr Elias to her left and a journalist from Tanzania to her right. She is surrounded by six journalists from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and three people from her organisation.

She settles in her chair, adjusts her notes in front of her and places a black pen on the stack and starts the exclusive interview.

You have today (Tuesday) announced a $80 Million Commitment to "Close Gender Data Gaps" and "Accelerate Progress for Women and Girls." Why is this important?

We have very little data. Need to build a data system, instead of waiting every three to five years to see how we are doing in Family Planning. The data will let us know how the access to contraceptive is, what the supply is like, what contraceptives women use or if they were coerced into it.

We can measure these indicators every six months, to know which countries are on track and areas to know where to ask our partners for more funding if in West Africa, Kenya, Tanzania or Uganda.

Which data will you be looking for?

We will look at data on unpaid work, income, family planning, violence, energy sources, land ownership, agriculture and how women are spending their time among other indicators. We will work with and the UN Women, the implementers of the grant and they will work with the National Statistical offices in countries.

The Gates Foundation is very passionate about vaccination such as for Polio and the current malaria vaccine candidate (vaccine known as RTS,S is being developed by PATH). However, vaccination drives in Kenya even the recent one this week on measles and rubella as well as for tetanus, face opposition especially from the Catholic Church over concerns that the tetanus vaccines can cause infertility in women. As a Catholic mother what are your thoughts on this?

I vaccinate my own children. I couldn't advocate more strongly to vaccinate your child (laughs). They are 100 per cent safe, they are quality tested around the world and are used by women and men around the world. They save lives.

Anybody that says something against that is just false and that makes me angry (laughs).

(Lifts her left index finger) I am catholic and I absolutely vaccinate my children and I recommend every parent around the world to. Vaccination is a very different thing from contraceptives and vaccines should be done for every child.

There is no moral reason not to do it. In fact, there is a moral imperative to do it, if you are a parent you want all good things for your children, you want them to grow up safe.

Chris Elias: When that came up last year, the Ministry of Health responded to the reactions and said those rumours are dangerous and results to loss of children's lives.

Most of the vaccines that Kenya uses, many are provided through GAVI (an international Vaccine Alliance entity) and procured by the UNICEF supply division that apply the highest standards of quality. Those are dangerous rumours on life-saving products.

You visited Tanzania last year, what lessons did you learn from the community you interacted with?

I stayed in a Maasai family with my eldest daughter and I learnt many things from them. Such as how difficult it is to live in circumstances with no water. At the birth of their first son, Robert, they had a marital crisis. Which I think most marriages have at some point, if we are all honest about it.

But when the husband came home the wife had packed his bags and the new born in her arms. He loved her but she said: you brought me to this place with no water and I have been going and collecting water every day. But I can't nurse our son and keep him healthy and still fetch water.

She asked him to start carrying the water. Which he did for a while and this had him stigmatised by his community but they understood what women go through to fetch water. When we visited, we found four water points had been constructed which are closer to the homestead.

What is your take of the natural family planning method versus the modern methods? There are some religious beliefs such as some churches where women are asked to only use the natural method. What are your thoughts?

I believe in modern contraceptive. But women should make their own choice, because women use different contraceptives for a certain time and opt for another. As a foundation, our job is to make sure there are as many options for women on the table. Women want different options.

Like the church, we all share a common mission of social justice. How we do it to offer contraceptives so that they can plan and space their children and have the best chance of lifting themselves out of poverty.

Most panels in the conference are women dominated, with very few men involved. Is there anything you are doing to bring the men to the table?

There has to be boys and girls, men and women furthering the agenda for women. They have to be part of that conversation too. Something that makes me so enthused is that most of the votes in signing the Sustainable Development Goals were by men.

There are a few women but it's the men who make those decisions. A lot of whom are enlightened men who grew up as enlightened boys, but also because they have daughters. They ask: How do we make sure that all girls always come up?

Foundation works on health, decision making and economic activities that also includes agriculture.

What drives your commitment?

When you meet people and see the disparity and the burden of women. If you don't empower them you don't empower their families. What inspires me is the women I meet on the ground, the unbelievable lengths the eye would go for their children. It's about the next generation, they invest in their education.

How is your day like? How do you get to relax?

(Breaks into a hearty laughter) At home or on the road? I still have three kids, one at college and two teenagers. Bill and I try to be home for dinner because I believe family dinners are so important.

Then to unwind, I love to exercise. We live in North West so I love to be out doors, I love to be out on my kayak, I am on my bicycle, I love to jog. Bill and I like to watch movies so we try to take time out on the weekend to go to movies.

What keeps you up at night?

(Laughs) Besides my kids? I have two teenagers. (Laughs) If we are working in an area and I feel like we don't know as much as we need to know.

Right around the time we were at the Family Planning summit in London, I was up on the nights worrying about if were we setting the right goals; are we going to get the partners on board; are we going to get the funding that we needed to get things going.

But any new area that we go as a foundation where I feel that we don't quite have our hands around it; that keeps me up at night.

Because it's not just our own money but we are also investing Warren Buffet's, our partners' money and we are asking other governments to invest alongside, so those are big responsibilities.

Which projects are you particularly proud of and did surprisingly better than you had anticipated?

Our foundation is incredibly pleased that we are in the last kilometre on the polio fight and that is, you know (knocks the table twice) knock on wood.

That is a huge ambitious project. Chris and his team runs that. To say that we are where we are now, wow, it's still work to go, fingers crossed for Pakistan but seeing what's possible and what can builds from that program, the data systems, the partners, us coming together, a real strategy. A fact that we haven't seen any polio in the continent of Africa now in over a year, wow (smiles).

Chris: It's been 21 months.

Melinda: Yes, 21 months.

Chris: In a year and a half, if there are no more cases Africa will be certified polio free.

Melinda: That gives us momentum that it can be done in other diseases like malaria, we can be really ambitious with malaria and take a lot of lessons learnt from polio.

What are the next projects?

We are looking at adolescents' reproductive health and how you reach those girls especially those under pressure to have the first child (either due to early marriage) as you know it's horrific to have a child at 14.

If we can help her delay at all the first pregnancy and educate her about her body, her cycle and what options are. We can do that covertly. Give her a safe place to learn about her body. Even if she can't delay much the first birth, at least let her space the second and third child.

Thus her chances of her not dying at childbirth [are reduced], and her children can grow up and be healthier. This is the place the Family planning community can go next.

The interview ended at 3.56pm with a photo session with the journalists and heartily she says: goodbye and thank you for the interesting questions.

Her communication team intimate that Mrs Gates has her bags packed for a visit to Kenya however, they do not diverge when they would happen but say it is soon.

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