At least one in five African children lack access to basic life-saving vaccines, according to a new report.
Titled "Fulfilling a promise: ensuring immunization for all in Africa" the report was released by the World Health Organisation during a recent health ministers conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
It paints a mixed picture on vaccine access, delivery systems and immunisation equity in Africa.
Whereas routine immunization coverage has increased considerably across Africa since 2000; and the introduction of new vaccines has been a major success; there are still children who go without the jab, putting their lives at risk.
The report notes that there are three critical diseases — measles, rubella and neonatal tetanus— which remain endemic. It regrets that many countries have fragile health systems that leave immunisation programs vulnerable to shocks.
The Ugandan perspective
In a separate email interview with New Vision, the director of Uganda National Expanded Immunisation Programme (UNEPI), Dr. Robert Mayanja said the country has recorded improved coverage in immunization against six killer diseases. In 1986, children were only being immnunised against only six diseases.
Today, there are vaccines against eight diseases including, Polio, Diphtheria, Whooping cough, Tetanus, Hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenza, Measles and meningitis. And more vaccines are in the pipeline.
"In October, last year HPV vaccine against cancer of cervix was rolled to whole country. This year, we plan to introduce the Rota virus vaccine against diarrhoea in children. When malaria vaccine finally gets endorsed by WHO to be used in malaria endemic countries, Uganda may introduce it around 2018," Mayanja stated.
According to the 2011 Uganda Demographic Health Survey, the vaccination coverage in Uganda had improved over the previous past ten years.
The percentage of children aged 12-23 months fully vaccinated by 12 months of age has increased from 29 percent in 2000 to 36 percent in 2006 and 40 percent in 2011.
However, coverage estimates alone do not automatically mean that all is well. Overall, only 4 in 10 children were fully vaccinated by 12 months, according to the Survey.
Dr. Mayanja concurs and says for instance, says measles coverage for infants in 2014, was reported at 96%.
"However, there were about 62,000 children less than one year who were not reached with measles vaccine, based on measles coverage that we achieved in 2014," he says
Dr. Mayanja cites several challenges, including lack of resources and poor roads. "Some roads are inaccessible when it rains, while some health centers do not have fridges yet vaccines must be kept very in a cold environment of 2 to 8 degrees centigrade," he says.
It is against this background that health experts are enganging political will. During the recent conference in Addis Ababa, ministers of health across the continent committed themselves to keep immunisation at the forefront of efforts to reduce child deaths and disability.
The ministers signed a declaration to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against vaccine-preventable diseases and to close the immunisation gap by 2020. The declaration will be presented to the African Heads of States at the 26th Summit of the African Union in June 2016.
Experts hope this will increase efforts to mobilize resources for national immunization programme.
"Our children are our most precious resource, yet one in five fail to receive all the immunizsations they need to survive and thrive, leaving millions vulnerable to preventable disease," Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu, Minister of Health for Ethiopia.
"This is not acceptable. African children's lives matter," he added.
The economic benefits of immunization are proven to greatly outweigh the costs.
"We all agree that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective solutions in global health. Investing in immunization programs will enable African countries to see an outstanding economic benefit," said Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chair of the Gavi Board and former Finance Minister of Nigeria.
"If we can ensure that all African children can access life-saving vaccines, no matter where they are born, we will have a golden opportunity to create a more prosperous future for communities across our continent."
"With the right mix of political will, financial resources and technical acumen, Africa is positioned to make an incredible leap in immunization coverage," said Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.
The conference, which was hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Offices for Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean in conjunction with the African Union Commission was the first-ever ministerial-level gathering focused on ensuring that children are immunized.