By Dr. Matshidiso Moeti and Dr. Ala Alwan
Africa has an incredible opportunity to provide a better life for each and every child – and we know exactly how to seize it: provide universal access to immunization across the continent to protect them from vaccine preventable diseases.
We have seen the transformative impact of efforts to reach more children with life-saving vaccines. Child deaths in Africa fell by half over the past generation, in large part due to the use of high impact interventions such as immunization.
Polio, a disease that once paralyzed children in every country, hasn’t been seen anywhere on the continent in more than a year. Because of a new meningitis vaccine, hundreds of millions of people no longer live in fear of this life-threatening infection, which wreaked havoc across Africa’s so-called “meningitis belt.”
The benefits of immunization extend far beyond health. When children are vaccinated, they have fewer illnesses so health care costs are lower for families and the health system. Vaccinated children are more likely to stay in school, strengthening the economic outlook for themselves and their communities. Immunization is one of the most cost-effective strategies to improve living standards and put countries on a path to achieve their full economic potential.
Unfortunately, far too many children in Africa still miss out on essential immunization services. One in five children on the continent does not receive the vaccines he or she needs. Globally, Africa has the lowest level of immunization coverage of any region: more than half of the world’s unimmunized infants are located in five African countries.
To galvanize action, the World Health Organization’s offices for Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, in conjunction with the African Union and other partners, are hosting the first-ever Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa, in Addis Ababa from February 24-25, 2016.
This conference will represent a remarkable moment. For the first time ministers of health, finance and other sectors from across the continent will come together to declare their commitment to strengthening immunization services, and put universal access to immunization at the forefront of efforts to improve health and drive sustainable development. These leaders are taking action now because they know that vaccines are a smart investment and that their countries can and must do more.
The economic benefits of vaccination are clear, yet less than 20 countries in Africa currently fund more than 50% of their own immunization expenditure. The generosity of outside donors, particularly over the past decade, has enabled African countries to strengthen immunization programs and introduce new vaccines. While donor support will remain important, as African countries continue to grow economically, our shared goal should be for all governments to fully finance their national immunization programs.
Significantly, the ministers will be joined in Addis by civil society and religious leaders, because reaching children with vaccines requires more than government funding. Reaching more children also requires that parents understand the value of immunization and make receiving vaccines a priority for their children. The entire community should be engaged in planning for immunization activities, so that when health workers arrive to provide vaccines, families show up.
The communities we need to engage the most are the ones that have traditionally been underserved, and where health systems are the weakest. Children whose parents have little or no education or income are among the least likely to receive the vaccines they need. In poor and remote areas, health systems to deliver vaccines and other basic health services are weak or nonexistent.
We are optimistic that Africa can rise to these challenges in part because of the success achieved in the fight against polio. Government leaders at all levels committed to delivering polio vaccines to all children. Communities and religious leaders were engaged to build trust among parents. The polio program focused on reaching every last child in spite of immensely challenging circumstances including conflict.
Efforts to stop polio strengthened the infrastructure and expertise needed to reach children with vaccines for all diseases. Countries that beat back polio have better equipment to keep vaccines cold, more trained health workers and systems in place to monitor disease spread. If countries invest in sustaining this infrastructure, they will keep polio out and advance other health priorities.
The benefits of immunization for Africa have never been clearer, and universal access to immunization is an achievable goal. We look forward to convening leaders from across sectors and countries on the 24th and 25th of February to take bold action to ensure that every African child receives the vaccines he or she needs to live a healthy and productive life.
About the authors
Dr Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO Regional Director for Africa. Dr Moeti is a public health veteran, with more than 35 years of national and international experience. She is the first woman to serve as the WHO Regional Director for Africa.
Dr Ala Alwan is the WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean. Before assuming this role, Dr Alwan was the Assistant Director-General for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at WHO Headquarters, and Assistant Director-General for Health Action in Crises. Dr Alwan was also Minister of Education, and Minister of Health in the Government of Iraq.