THE BLOG
04/29/2016 03:50 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2017

It's Unacceptable That an Estimated 1.5 Million Children Die Each Year from Preventable Diseases

I can still remember taking my kids to their pediatrician for their first shots. As a new mom, I was eager to protect them and a bit concerned about how they would react to their visit to the doctor. It's an experience I remember vividly every year during World Immunization Week. Parents want the best for their children and making sure they are immunized is one of the simplest and most important actions they can take.

However, in the developing world, there are challenges. In countries with little health infrastructure, parents confront a terrifying reality that I can't imagine as an American mother -- diseases such as measles, tetanus and pneumonia that can kill children or disable them for a lifetime. And, all too often, that's just what happens. Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 million children die every year from a disease we could have easily prevented with a low-cost vaccination that takes seconds to administer.

It is frustrating that false claims about the effects of vaccines on children have frightened some in the U.S., when the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that vaccines are both safe and effective. In fact, vaccines are one of the main reasons global child mortality has plummeted since 1990, saving an estimated 2.5 million lives each year. By working with governments, partners, local health workers, community volunteers and parents, UNICEF has helped increase the number of children vaccinated against childhood diseases from 20 percent in 1980, to 86 percent in 2014. The progress we've made is remarkable.

Take Nigeria, for example. In the early 2000s it was on the verge of eradicating polio when a handful of community leaders questioned the safety of the polio vaccine. Fear spread. As a result, thousands of children missed their immunizations and contracted polio. In response, religious and community leaders, educators and vaccinator teams -- many of them polio survivors themselves -- reached out to educate and reassure parents, and to deliver lifesaving vaccines. As a result, on July 24, 2015, Nigeria marked the first year in its history without a single case of wild polio.

What have we learned from initiatives like these? That collaboration is the key to protecting children from preventable diseases. In 1988, UNICEF joined with the World Health Organization, Rotary International, CDC, and other partners to launch the Global Polio Eradication Initiative. To date, 2.5 billion children have been immunized. The number of cases of wild polio has dropped from 350,000 in 1988 to just 74 cases reported globally in 2015. Now we're on the verge of eradicating polio all over the world in a few short years -- a milestone in public health.

Yet, tragically, global immunization levels against major childhood diseases have stalled since 2008. Why? The answer is complex.

Sometimes we face severe logistical challenges. Children may not be immunized because they live in remote communities in countries with rudimentary transportation infrastructure. Even in cities, where it's easier to ship vaccines safely, some kids from marginalized communities are particularly hard to reach and consistently miss out on accessing health services.

Sadly, war and violence also keep children from being immunized. Not only are health centers and hospitals routinely attacked but when children flee their homes, health workers often can't reach them. Annually, more than 18.5 million infants remain unvaccinated, and nearly two-thirds of these live in countries ravaged by conflict. In Syria, for example, immunization rates have dropped sharply since the conflict began, from 80 percent in 2010 to 43 percent in 2014.

Worst of all, lack of funding is a major obstacle. This is particularly frustrating since we're just about to stamp out child-killing diseases in many countries. The way to tackle this is through continued collaboration with governments to reach every child, no matter where they live, or whatever their circumstance. We must also ensure that the public, here and abroad, understands what can happen if we don't immunize our kids. We must strive to protect all of the world's children from early childhood diseases that kill and we cannot afford to stall our efforts. The cost in lives and potential is too great.

About UNICEF
The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) works in more than 190 countries and territories to put children first. UNICEF has helped save more children's lives than any other humanitarian organization, by providing health care and immunizations, clean water and sanitation, nutrition, education, emergency relief and more. The U.S. Fund for UNICEF supports UNICEF's work through fundraising, advocacy and education in the United States. Together, we are working toward the day when no children die from preventable causes and every child has a safe and healthy childhood. For more information, visit www.unicefusa.org.