By Claudia Blume
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) supporters around the world were thrilled recently when pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced that it was reducing the price of its pneumonia vaccine to US$3.10 per dose for humanitarian organizations working in emergency settings.
For seven years, MSF had been negotiating with Pfizer and competitor GSK – the world’s only manufacturers of the pneumonia vaccine – to offer the lowest global price to humanitarian organizations. Pneumonia is a leading cause of child mortality worldwide, but MSF and other humanitarian organizations struggled to purchase pneumonia vaccines because of the high costs. At the beginning of 2016, MSF was paying US$68.10 for every dose of the Pfizer product it needed to vaccinate refugee children in Greece. MSF launched the A Fair Shot advocacy campaign in 2015 to urge the two pharmaceutical companies to reduce the price of the vaccine for humanitarian situations. In September 2016, GSK finally decided it would offer a lower price, followed by Pfizer’s announcement two months later.
Grandmothers making a difference
A group of Canadian grandmothers played an active role in supporting the successful campaign, which will help protect the lives of millions of vulnerable children around the world. They are members of the Grandmothers Advocacy Network (GRAN) – a Canada-wide group of mostly retired volunteers who advocate for policies and changes that will improve the rights of grandmothers, children and youth in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly those affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Access to affordable medicines is one of their main focus areas. When they heard that MSF was launching A Fair Shot in the spring of 2015, the organization immediately decided to support it. “The campaign was very much in line with our advocacy work, as children with HIV/AIDS are more likely to develop pneumonia than HIV negative children,” says GRAN member Irene Clarke, a retired nurse from Oakville, Ontario. “It was also a great opportunity to work with a highly respected organization.” After meeting with MSF representatives at GRAN’s national gathering in Ottawa in June 2015, the grandmothers were ready for action and created a detailed campaign plan.
They wrote letters to the CEOs of the Canadian offices of Pfizer and GSK, urging them to lower the price of their pneumonia vaccines, but did not receive satisfactory replies. They were more successful in getting people to sign the A Fair Shot petition, using innovative ways to draw attention to the issue. “We organized fake fifth birthday parties - with balloons and cupcakes - at local churches, universities and high schools. The idea was that if children get the right vaccines, they are able to celebrate their fifth birthday,” says Clarke.
Angela Quinlan, a GRAN member from Ottawa, joined forces with student supporters of MSF and organized a petition signing event at the University of Ottawa. “We got a lot of signatures,” she recalls. While the grandmothers also made extensive use of social media tools to promote the campaign, some found that simply talking to people in their own personal networks had the biggest impact. “Everyone who is a grandparent or a parent can relate to this. How is it possible that children in developing countries, and even in middle-income countries, don’t have access to a pneumonia vaccine that is taken for granted here?” says Quinlan. “No one I spoke with had ever heard about this issue, and everyone was shocked. I even got a man at my local church who owns Pfizer shares to sign the petition.”
The petition was signed by over 400,000 people from 170 countries, and handed over to Pfizer and GSK in April 2016.
In November, MSF sent out a message to its supporters, asking them to call Pfizer and urge the company to reduce the price of its pneumonia vaccine. “Within two hours we had a message going to our members across the country saying, can you please call Pfizer today?” says Clarke. “We can move very fast. One of our assets is persistence and nimbleness.”
The GRANs were thrilled when they learned about Pfizer’s price reduction announcement a few days later. “Advocacy work can be a long slog, and it can be frustrating,” says GRAN member Marilyn Coolen from Halifax. “We often spend many years thinking that no one is listening. So it’s wonderful to see that our work paid off."
Better access to lifesaving medicines
MSF Canada humanitarian affairs adviser Jason Nickerson says that the grandmothers brought a unique perspective to the advocacy campaign, and were successful at engaging with new groups about the important issue of access to lifesaving medicines. “What this really shows is that the issue of access to medicines is one that resonates with us all, and that community groups and organizations like GRAN have an important voice that needs to be heard when we talk about access issues,” he says.
The GRANs thanked Pfizer for the price reduction on Twitter, but urged the company to do more. The grandmothers share MSF’s hopes that Pfizer will extend its efforts to developing countries by offering a lower price to all governments which still can’t afford to protect their children against pneumonia.