I witnessed first-hand the devastation of Cyclone Idai in a visit to Mozambique earlier this month. The severe flooding triggered by the cyclone left the water and sanitation systems in ruins. As the spread of cholera became a real risk, it was clear that speed would be critical to save lives and prevent even more suffering among the nearly two million people affected by the cyclone in that country alone. In response, immunization partners mobilized to dispatch some 900,000 doses of the oral cholera vaccine in a large-scale campaign, helping to halt the spread of the disease.
In the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, more than 11,000 people died. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is now battling Ebola as well, but thanks to the new Ebola vaccine – with almost 100,000 people vaccinated to date – the spread of the disease has been significantly slowed. Rapid response in the early stages of an epidemic, effective surveillance systems, community engagement and ensuring local health workers are trained in reporting potential cases are central factors in a robust and well-prepared public health system.
The reach of immunization programmes – in Mozambique, the DR Congo and across the region – is made possible by health workers who are nothing short of heroes. They often trek through harsh conditions to reach children in the most remote communities with life-saving vaccines. We need to both celebrate and invest in health workers in Africa to make sure they have the skills and resources they need to continue delivering immunization and other essential health services to vulnerable populations everywhere.
This week, countries across the continent are celebrating African Vaccination Week, with vaccination drives, community outreach programmes and national launch events. African Vaccination Week is an opportunity for all stakeholders to reflect on the progress we have achieved to date and recommit to expanding access to immunization services to reach every one, particularly children.
Recent outbreaks have taught us that early action is crucial to successfully manage health emergencies. But we must also invest in the everyday work of increasing routine immunization coverage to stop potential outbreaks in their tracks and improve the overall health of our children, families and communities. Only by working together will we be protected together – through collective action, we can ensure that every child, everywhere has a safer, healthier life through the power of vaccines.
African leaders are committed to extending the benefits of immunization to all. In 2017, Heads of State in Africa endorsed the Addis Declaration on Immunization, a historic pledge that envisions a future in which every child, no matter where they are born, has access to vaccines.
Although Africa has made tremendous progress in improving immunization in recent decades and introducing new vaccines, the sobering truth is that one in five children here are still not receiving all of the basic and necessary vaccines to protect them from preventable illness and even death. In fact, every year, more than half a million children in Africa die from diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines.
In addition to saving young lives, widespread immunization programmes provide a solid foundation upon which nations can grow and thrive economically. For every $1 spent on childhood immunizations, there is a $44 return in economic benefits, making immunization one of the most successful and cost-effective interventions to help children grow into healthy adults.
With African States increasingly committing to universal health coverage, strengthening immunization systems must be an integral part of their agenda. Several countries are making valiant progress. Countries from Senegal and Rwanda to Botswana and São Tomé and Príncipe have achieved immunization coverages of more than 90%, in line with their Addis Declaration on Immunization commitment and other global targets. These efforts are laudable, but we must not stop here. The World Health Organization is committed to helping all countries on their path to universal immunization.
We all have a role in staving off the despair brought about by preventable deaths and ushering in an era of hope in which the promise of vaccines is realized and immunization programmes reach everyone in Africa. This is true at all levels: Parents can ensure that their children are vaccinated on time, every time, with the target of each child being fully immunized. Anyone involved in their community can become a vaccine champion and talk to others about the benefits. Health workers can make sure that every contact is an opportunity to rectify missing vaccinations. And politicians and decision-makers can put in place the policies, budgets and accountability mechanisms that ensure immunization programmes reach all children in all locations.
Now is the time to rally our communities, redouble our efforts and move from commitment to action to ensure that access to immunization and to a life free from preventable disease is truly universal.
Dr Matshidiso Moeti is the WHO Regional Director for Africa. African Vaccination Week kicks off on 22 April.