In Congress, communities, and the media, a doctor from Tanzania inspires support for global vaccines

May 29, 2024
by Lesley Reed, Director of Donor Communications

Dr. Theopista Jacob Masenge has not only witnessed the harm of one of the world’s most contagious diseases, she’s experienced it herself. The pediatrician was born in Tanzania two years before immunization programs began there. Early in her career, she contracted measles during an outbreak. Then things got worse. “I unknowingly transmitted measles to my 6-month-old daughter.” 

Both mother and baby became patients at the very hospital where Dr. Theo was a new physician on staff. “Being a patient and wearing the shoes of a desperate mom of a child [in critical condition] was traumatic. This shouldn’t happen to any child when there is a vaccine.” 

Now, Dr. Theo is a renowned pediatrician and vice president of the Pediatric Association of Tanzania. She spoke about her experience of being a patient, a doctor, and a vaccine expert on a media call that RESULTS arranged.  

During her 15-day visit, she gave 25 presentations across four states and Washington, D.C. She spoke to congressional staff on Capitol Hill and in their home districts in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas. She talked with reporters at outlets ranging from the Baltimore Sun to NPR to Vox (she’s with Vox reporter Dylan Matthews below). Health professionals, leaders from the Biden Administration, and global health organizations heard from her. And she inspired people at community outreach events organized by RESULTS volunteer advocates. 

Dr. Theopista Jacob Masenge talking to a Vox reporter at RESULTS

RESULTS invited Dr. Theo on the whirlwind tour to reinforce our call for increased U.S. leadership for vaccines. During the COVID-19 pandemic, global vaccination suffered the largest backslide in 30 years. We need to reach the 14 million “zero-dose” children who have never received a single vaccine — and we have an important opportunity ahead. 

Later this year, world leaders will make funding commitments to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi is a global partnership that supports vaccine access in countries deeply affected by poverty. Since 2000, it has helped vaccinate more than 1 billion children. This effort prevented more than 17 million deaths from diseases like pneumonia, measles, and rotavirus. Now, Gavi aims to reach those zero-dose kids and roll out a new game-changing malaria vaccine. We’re pushing Congress and the administration to make a bold commitment to Gavi. An early, ample U.S. funding pledge sends a signal to other countries to be bold as well.  

Child deaths dramatically reduced  

During her talks, Dr. Theo shared the incredible power of vaccines. She also emphasized the importance of U.S. support. When she started working in a pediatric diarrhea ward, well over half of Dr. Theo’s patients didn’t survive. “It was a sad moment to come into the ward the next day and find your patients have died and you have new patients,” she said.  

But, since then, country-wide immunization campaigns have reduced child deaths in Tanzania by more than two-thirds. (Dr. Theo has led several of the campaigns.) “It has been something to have children come into the ward and leave happy,” she said. “As a medical professional, I’ve never seen any other medical intervention or tool that will save lives like vaccines. We are not just looking at the numbers, we are looking at the real lives saved.” 

“You are saving lives globally,” she told her U.S. audiences. “You may not see it, but we are seeing it.”  

“This is exactly what we needed to hear,” said one participant following Dr. Theo’s presentation at a congressional briefing titled A Global Health Relay: The Race to Immunize All Children (below). 

Dr. Theopista Jacob Masenge (third from the left) on a panel at a congressional briefing

U.S. senators introduce a resolution in support 

Dr. Theo also inspired RESULTS volunteer advocates and RESULTS fellows. The latter were in Washington, D.C. for the RESULTS Fellowship Organizing and Advocacy Conference. With Dr. Theo’s stories and statistics in hand, they headed to Capitol Hill to ask their members of Congress to support increased funding for Gavi. Across the country, volunteers who heard Dr. Theo speak also contacted their members of Congress. Some delivered postcards written by medical students, RESULTS volunteers, and community members to their congressional offices. 

A week after Dr. Theo’s visit, Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced a resolution affirming continued U.S. support for Gavi. The resolution encourages continued increased commitment and a multi-year investment to Gavi. RESULTS volunteers are urging their senators to become cosponsors. We expect a similar bipartisan House resolution to be released soon.  

“Witnessing the before and after of vaccination in our countries motivates us,” Dr. Theo said. “It doesn’t matter where you are born, you deserve to live. Especially if you are a child.” 

Stay in action and up-to-date.
Get our Weekly Updates!

This site uses cookies to help personalize content, tailor your experience and to keep you logged in if you register. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our cookies.