Close the Immunization Gap! Get Vaccinated

04/25/2015 11:39 am ET | Updated Jun 24, 2015

Immunization Prevents 2 - 3 Million Deaths a Year
Until the second half of the 20th century, the only way a child could become immune to infectious diseases like whooping cough or measles was to actually get the disease and survive it. Too often, however, infection led to tragic, premature death.

Today, children all over the world are routinely immunized against a growing range of diseases. At the World Health Organization (WHO), we estimate that immunization prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths every year from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis) and measles. Increasingly, we are seeing how immunization against one disease can prevent another.

In a major step forward for women's health, immunization against the all-too-common human papilloma virus is proving effective in preventing cervical cancer. A new vaccine that has been fast-tracked through to the last stage of clinical trials could play an important role in preventing a future Ebola outbreak.

Congratulations are due to many individuals and institutions for making all this happen. The researchers who toil to develop new effective vaccines. The governments that allocate money to ensure that the children in their country get the immunizations they need. The national and international organizations who work to get these lifesavers to children in low-income countries and to overcome the challenges posed by conflict, natural disasters, and other crises. The health workers who carry out the vaccinations and make sure that schedules get followed and record cards kept up to date. And the communities and the parents, who embrace and welcome these vaccination efforts.

High-level political and financial commitment have been key. In 2012, at the World Health Assembly, governments agreed a new Global Vaccine Action Plan - a universal political commitment to ensure that no one misses out on vital immunizations. Earlier this year, donor countries and institutions pledged to meet the funding needs of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance that brings together public and private sectors to create equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the world's poorest countries.

Shocking Gaps Remain
But despite these two important developments, shocking gaps remain. A recent report by the expert group that monitors progress against the Global Vaccine Action Plan the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization ( SAGE) reveals that the world is on track to meet just one of the six targets set for 2015 - the goal of improving access to new and underused vaccines: notably vaccines to prevent pneumonia and diarrhoea, two of the major killers of children under five , which were introduced in 103 and 52 countries respectively.

The other five targets - for increasing coverage of vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3); ending the transmission of polio; elimination of maternal and newborn tetanus; elimination of measles in four regions and rubella in two regions- will all be missed. Some countries have made notable progress: Ethiopia, Indonesia and Nigeria have all increased DTP3 coverage. Nigeria has also made inroads into polio elimination. China and India have focused on maternal and neonatal tetanus. But millions of children risk death because they are not getting the immunizations they need.

How can we stop this?
By doing more to strengthen systems and services. Getting the vaccines to health centres - itself a feat - isn't enough. We need to make sure children actually get them. This means integrating immunization with other health services - post-natal care for mothers and babies, for example - to make sure mothers know how important vaccines are to keeping their children alive and healthy, and that they can get them.

Keep vaccinating children through conflicts, natural disasters, and disease outbreaks by ensuring that systems and services are robust enough. The Ebola outbreak has highlighted this only too starkly. We are currently involved in a massive effort to immunize children against measles in the three countries affected by Ebola.

By ensuring that everyone can both access vaccines, and afford to pay for them. This means strengthening efforts to get vaccines to remote and other hard-to-access areas - including by increasing numbers of qualified health workers. And it means devising ways to improve affordability - both by keeping prices down, and by improving countries' own capacities to reduce the need for people to pay for immunization out of their own pockets - a particular challenge in middle income countries that often receive less assistance from international donors.

And then there's one more big issue: Improve people's confidence in vaccines. To my great alarm, we have recently seen measles outbreaks in countries like Germany and the United States - not because mothers cannot obtain vaccines, but because they have elected not to immunize their children. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, parents are being wrongly advised not to protect their children from polio.

I find this tragic.

How can anyone who has seen a child die of measles or pneumonia - or struggle to survive with its legacy - doubt that immunization is one of the most amazing gifts our scientists have given us?

In World Immunization Week 2015, I urge everyone who can possibly do so, to take steps to help us Close the Immunization Gap !