By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
A UN-led global immunization strategy was launched on Monday as the world celebrates World Immunization Week 2021 from 24 – 30 April. This year’s observance has the theme: “Vaccines bring us closer.”
The World Health Organization, UNICEF, and GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, are highlighting the urgent need for a renewed global commitment to improve vaccination access and uptake during this week, as millions of children remain vulnerable to deadly diseases in spite of the gradual recovery of immunization services from the disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, disruptions caused by the pandemic at the beginning of 2020 caused vaccine deliveries to fall from 2.29 billion in 2019, to just over two billion doses last year.
A WHO survey also found that more than one-third of respondent countries (37%) still report disruptions to their routine immunization services when compared to the situation in 2020.
Lost ground means lost lives
“The pandemic has made a bad situation worse, causing millions more children to go unimmunized,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director. “Now that vaccines are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, we must sustain this energy to help every child catch up on their measles, polio and other vaccines. We have no time to waste. Lost ground means lost lives.”
Even before the pandemic, Fore pointed out, “there were worrying signs that we were beginning to lose ground in the fight against preventable child illness, with 20 million children already missing out on critical vaccinations.”
“Vaccines will help us end the COVID-19 pandemic but only if we ensure fair access for all countries, and build strong systems to deliver them,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “And if we’re to avoid multiple outbreaks of life-threatening diseases like measles, yellow fever and diphtheria, we must ensure routine vaccination services are protected in every country in the world.”
Large populations at risk
Currently, 60 lifesaving mass vaccination campaigns have been postponed in 50 countries, putting around 228 million people, mostly children, at risk of diseases like measles, polio and yellow fever, WHO said.
Moreover, more than half of the 50 affected countries are in Africa, where measles campaigns have seen the most disruption, with 23 postponed vaccination drives, affecting approximately 140 million people.
Amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, serious measles outbreaks have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, and Yemen as a result of gaps in vaccination coverage. Many of these measles campaigns have been delayed for over one year, WHO noted.
Global immunization strategy
In response to the situation, WHO, UNICEF and GAVI have launched the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030) with the aim of maximizing the lifesaving impact of vaccines through stronger immunization systems.
The Immunization Agenda highlights that the world has vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, helping people of all ages live longer, healthier lives. If fully implemented, it will avert “an estimated 50 million deaths, – 75% of them in low – and lower-middle-income countries,” said WHO.
By 2030, the targets to be achieved include attaining 90% coverage for essential vaccines given in childhood and adolescence, halving the number of children missing out on vaccines and completing 500 nation or subnational introductions of new and under-utilized vaccines, including those for Covid-19, rotavirus and human papillomavirus (HPV).
Appeal to countries and global health community
To achieve these goals, WHO, UNICEF and GAVI are appealing to world leaders and the global health and development community to make commitments to IA2030 and invest in stronger immunization systems, with specific approaches for fragile and conflict-affected countries. They also call on all countries to develop and implement ambitious national immunization plans that align with the IA2030 framework.
At the same time, the three organizations encourage donors and governments to increase investments in vaccine research, innovation, development and delivery, with a focus on underserved populations. Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry and scientists should continue working with governments and funders to accelerate Research and Development (R&D) to ensure a continuous supply of affordable vaccines to meet global needs.