Open letter to Pfizer employees: We need allies

Dear Pfizer employees,

Almost a year ago to the day, we were outside your office in New York City piling fake cash in front of your doorstep. Six months ago, we returned to lay 2,500 flowers into a crib — all this to illustrate that the life-saving pneumonia vaccine Pfizer makes isn’t reaching children in need.

I know we may not have started off on the right foot, so let me introduce myself: I’m Mary Jo, and I’ve worked as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders for 17 years.

By now you may have heard what our campaign, A Fair Shot, is asking of you: pneumonia vaccine for $5/child for all developing countries and humanitarian organizations. I need this possibility to become a reality, because the reality we live in now — where nearly a million kids die every year from this preventable disease — is heartbreaking.

Let me tell you about Mohamed, a six-year-old boy I met on my most recent mission to Nigeria. He was sitting on the floor with his younger brother when I arrived at the clinic. They both looked very thin and had terrible, painful-looking ulcers on their lips. Mohamed was pretty much non-responsive. At the same time, though, he was huffing and trying desperately to breathe. He had a respiratory rate of 60, about three times higher than what it should be for a kid his age — meaning his lungs were working extra hard to get the amount of oxygen he needed.

I picked him up immediately. His breathing rate was a clear sign of pneumonia. Later we confirmed that Mohamed had malaria, measles, pneumonia — the trifecta of childhood killers — and malnutrition, too. We found an isolation bed for him and placed an IV in to administer the fluids and medicine he needed.

What struck me most about Mohamed was his seriousness. Even though I could tell he was in a lot of pain, and he didn’t have an appetite to eat or drink water, he was committed to his own autonomy. He wanted to hold the cup in his own hands, because it’s not normal to need someone else to have to feed you when you’re six years old. He was so weak, but he was committed to holding on.

Mohamed went home with his mom and brother that night. The next day, I went to another MSF clinic, closer to his home, and looked for him. When I walked into the pediatrics ward, I saw him just as when I met him the day before, sitting on the floor with his brother. But this time, he was lively. He was smiling. The turnaround was incredible. Mohamed was lucky he came into our clinic when he did, and we were lucky the antibiotics worked against his pneumonia. This isn’t always the case.

I think about what kids like Mohamed experience. Many of the kids we meet go through so much in life at such a young age — war, conflict, the constant running, and horrible poverty. We can’t prevent these things from happening. But the diseases? Those we can prevent. If we can at least protect kids with vaccination, then they have a fighting chance of surviving the rest of this stuff.

Mohamed’s pneumonia could’ve been prevented if your vaccine was available. Even when countries, like Nigeria, have introduced the pneumonia vaccine into the regular immunization schedules, sometimes conflict or natural disasters will disrupt routine health programs. That’s when humanitarian organizations can help provide some relief until situations stabilize.

Mothers line up with their kids to get the measles vaccinations at an MSF clinic in Nigeria. © Sylvain Cherkaoui/COSMOS   
Mothers line up with their kids to get the measles vaccinations at an MSF clinic in Nigeria. © Sylvain Cherkaoui/COSMOS

That’s why it’s important to lower the price of the pneumonia vaccine for countries who don’t receive donor-funded vaccines and humanitarian organizations.

We know that in order for this to become a reality, the desire for change has to come from within Pfizer, too. Will you stand in solidarity with kids like Mohamed?

It may not be easy, but if this resonates with you, please help spread the word by sharing this with a co-worker.

Thank you.