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 immunisation 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 immunisation. Polio, a disease that once paralysed children in every country, has not 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 immunisation 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. Immunisation 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 unessential immunisation services. One in five children on the continent does not receive the vaccines he or she needs. Globally, Africa has the lowest level of immunisation coverage of any region: more than half of the world’s unimmunised infants are located in five African countries.
To galvanise action, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) offices for Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean, in conjunction with the African Union and other partners, are hosting the first-ever conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 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 immunisation services, and put universal access to immunisation 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 20countries in Africa currently fund more than 50 percent of their own immunisation expenditure. The generosity of outside donors, particularly over the past decade, has enabled African countries to strengthen immunisation programmes 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 immunisation programmes.
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 immunisation and make receiving vaccines a priority for their children. The entire community should be engaged in planning for immunisation activities, so that when health workers arrive to provide vaccines, families show up.
The benefits of immunisation for Africa have never been clearer, and universal access to immunisation is an achievable goal. We look forward to convening leaders from across sectors and countries on February 24-25 to take bold action to ensure that every African child receives the vaccines he or she needs to live a healthy and productive life.
Dr Moeti is WHO Regional Director for Africa. She is a public health veteran, with over 35 years of national and international experience. She is the first woman to serve as the WHO Regional Director for Africa.
DrAlwan is WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.