Posted by: davidjolson | 11/11/2010

Rhone Rangers take aim at world’s leading child killer

Ruth Landy is a communication consultant and wine fan now based in San Francisco, following varied assignments on five continents.

SAN FRANCISCO, California — How often can you buy a glass of wine and save a life? At a hip San Francisco event space Tuesday evening, a wine-loving crowd did just that. You too can combine your sensorial and charitable instincts by participating in “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah,” a novel fund-raising campaign running through November.

And with the World Pneumonia Day taking place on November 12th, there’s an extra incentive.

I will always be haunted by the fearful, pleading gaze of the baby boy whose story we filmed in the emergency ward of Tanzania’s main hospital. He was hooked up to a basic respirator, tubes feeding up his tiny nostrils to help him breath.  Sweating profusely, his chest heaved up and down in rapid motion, a classic sign of acute pneumonia. His parents watched anxiously by his bedside as he battled for life over several days. They had traveled a great distance from their village and sold their meager possessions to cover the costs of getting their child to the hospital.

“Many of you may be surprised to hear that pneumonia kills more children than any other illness” Orin Levine told the crowd sipping syrah at Tuesday’s event. Levine, who heads the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University, is a wine aficionado himself and passionate advocate. While pneumonia is an under-recognized threat to children everywhere — UNICEF calls it “the silent killer” — it’s most deadly in poor nations. The disease kills more than 1.5 million children every year, or one death every 20 seconds.

It doesn’t have to be that way, wrote Levine in The Huffington Post:

“Safe and effective vaccines and treatments can eliminate at least half the cases of fatal pneumonia in children. The major obstacle is a lack of funding to purchase them for the children who urgently need them.”

Levine spotted an unlikely opportunity to advance his cause when he picked up a quirky association made by a prominent wine critic:  “What is easier to get rid of, a case of pneumonia or a case of syrah?” asked Eric Asimov at the beginning of his New York Times column last June.  His enquiry into the state of California syrah production spotlighted an unsettling trend already well known within the industry: Despite some great wines on the market, in the last few years, “sales of American syrah essentially dropped off a cliff.”

Reading Asimov’s article, Levine had a brain wave — challenge the wine makers to make common cause.  “If you guys want to get rid of cases of syrah and we want to get rid of cases of pneumonia, let’s do this together.”

Thus “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah” was born – a partnership between the Rhone Rangers, an association representing syrah growers, and the GAVI Alliance which promotes immunization in poor nations.  For each case of syrah sold in the month of November, 20 Rhone Ranger wineries are donating $10 – the cost of a vaccine.

“There’s a long and noble tradition of winemakers doing charitable works” says Stuart Montgomery, spokesman for the Rhone Rangers. “You can look back centuries, with the Hospices de Beaune being the oldest and most famous example.”  The Beaune charitable auction takes place every November, part of a three day festival devoted to Burgundy’s food and wines. Ah the French …

Back in San Francisco, no pomp and circumstance at the charity tasting. “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah” has its roots in the soil, as California producers discussed grape growing and harvesting, and the delicate alchemy of the wine-making process.  Yet this partnership is also very 21st century. GAVI-sponsored innovations in technology and finance are making the promise of new vaccines a reality for kids in poor nations for the first time in history.  You can check out this video to learn more about the impact the vaccine is beginning to have in Rwanda.

The Tanzanian baby boy we filmed turned out to be one of the lucky ones.  He was brought to the hospital early in the month when the meager pharmacy received a small stock of antibiotics for severe cases. The emergency room hospital staff gave him the medicine and within a few days he was off the respirator and on the road back to health.

We’re only beginning to deliver on the promise of preventing and treating pneumonia. If you want to learn more, here are five things you can do on World Pneumonia Day. One is to raise a glass to “Pneumonia’s Last Syrah” via the GAVI Campaign or the Rhone Rangers.  If you celebrate Thanksgiving, it’s a great season for the deep flavors and colors of syrah wine.  Savoring their complex aromas of spices, minerals and flowers, you will also be silently and magically adding to the number of healthy children around the world.

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