Sunderland scientist leads fight to save lives in Africa

Professor Neil French in Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa.
Professor Neil French in Lilongwe, Malawi, Africa.
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A SCIENTIST from Wearside is leading the fight to get life-saving vaccines to Africa.

Professor Neil French has provided pivotal research showing how treatments can prevent the spread of pneumonia and HIV/Aids.

A mother holds her child as they are vaccinated by health workers in Chifuchambewa, a farming village in the African bush 100 miles west of Lake Malawi, Africa.

A mother holds her child as they are vaccinated by health workers in Chifuchambewa, a farming village in the African bush 100 miles west of Lake Malawi, Africa.

The married father-of-three, originally from Ryhope, has lived in Malawi for the past nine years.

Dr French said the cost of providing vaccines to the world’s poorest countries was small, compared with that spent to bail out banks after the global financial crisis.

The professor of infectious diseases and global health for the University of Liverpool added: “Pneumococcal disease kills more than half a million children each year before their fifth birthday.

“Typically in Malawi, we see that out of every 1,000 children that are born, 90 to 100 of those will be dead before they reach the age of five.

“That puts them at the top end of the world’s league table in terms of cases of pneumonia, which is no great thing – but it is preventable.

“The vaccine is going to make a big difference.

“It will reduce the number of deaths, and it will reduce the number of children getting sick from complications of pneumonia that will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

Britain was the single biggest contributor to a fighting fund of £2.7billion, pledged by donors in London in June.

The money will be used to provide vaccines and strengthen health systems in developing nations.

It is then hoped that up to seven million deaths will be averted by 2030.

Dr French said: “When you get into the issues of what does it cost to deliver this kind of health care, we have seen in the news the costs to bail out the banks of Europe and North America and it is billions and trillions of dollars.

“To call it peanuts in comparison would be wrong, but you’re talking, on the scale of it, about relatively small amounts to make immense changes in the development of nations.

“For a country like Malawi, which has less natural resources than some other African nations and is going to have to rely on its human resources in the future, to keep a healthy, educated population will be critical.”

Dr French has devoted much of his career to the study of care for HIV-infected adults, and how the development of a pneumococcal vaccine could help those affected.

He also said he had seen a change in the culture of having very large numbers of children during his time in Malawi.

“People now have the hope that their children will survive, so they are planning for just two or three, rather than seven or eight so that at least a few of them would make it.”