World Immunisation Week is a moment to reflect on the progress and challenges facing the global health community. Although we cannot ignore the deeply unsettling anti-vaccines trend or the stagnating immunisation rates, this year offers significant opportunities to integrate immunisations into strong global health systems, which could have a profound impact on the number of children getting vaccinated.
Last year, vaccinations paid for by UK aid helped reduce Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo , curb the deadly spread of cholera in Yemen and contributed towards the near eradication of polio. It is this British leadership in global health that epitomises the UK at its best: a nation that is an outward-looking force for good in the world, leading the way in tackling the great health challenges facing the world’s poorest people.
Despite this success and reputation, global immunisation rates have stagnated as highlighted in the latest report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vaccinations for All – The Next Decade of Vaccines. What’s more, 1 child in 7 around the world is missing out on life-saving vaccinations. It’s the poorest children who are being left behind, unvaccinated and tragically falling prey to preventable diseases. The biggest infectious killer of children under-five today is pneumonia, a disease that can be prevented by a vaccine. Save the Children’s report Fighting for Breath reveals that 170 million young children in low- and middle-income countries are not vaccinated against pneumonia. To end deaths from pneumonia we must take a holistic approach, ensuring a child is vaccinated through a local health worker, and has the support of a local health system that can promote breastfeeding and good nutrition, and spot any signs of ill health in the child.
It is the strength of health systems that determines the lives of millions of children around the world. Weak health systems are riddled with inequalities, failing to meet the basic healthcare demands of a population and allowing disease to spread. Providing care to all children – the poorest and those hardest to reach – is critical if we are to address the currently stagnant global immunisation rates. When speaking on the pneumonic plague outbreak in Madagascar last year, the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros, pointed out: “Madagascar can make plague epidemics a thing of the past through strategic investments in its health system.”
In just a few weeks time, governments will gather at the World Health Assembly in Geneva, encouraged by Dr Tedros, to make costed actions plans on how they can achieve universal health coverage (UHC) – put simply, health for all. It’s critical that governments come prepared to pledge actions – rhetoric alone will not convert UHC aspirations into achievements.
The World Health Assembly in May is just one exciting opportunity for progress in the next 18 months. Global momentum is building around UHC. The United Nations will be hosting the first-ever High-Level Meeting on UHC in September. Next year, the UK will be hosting the Replenishment Summit for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. These are important opportunities for donor governments and national governments to play a role in delivering for children.
The UK is a world leader in global health and development. We should all be proud of the Department for International Development and the Department for Health and Social Care’s internationally recognised work on global health challenges. It saves lives and helps keep us safe from disease. As the biggest donor of Gavi, the UK has a critical role to play in helping to drive a global vaccine agenda that prioritises reaching the most deprived and marginalised children. As well as ensuring its successful replenishment, the UK should influence the GAVI strategy, pushing for equity, sustainability and better pricing. In this way, the UK can continue to lead the world in consigning devastating diseases to history – and creating a safer, healthier and more prosperous world for us all.
The UK has the expertise and skills to provide leadership in these international moments. Given these ripe opportunities, we hope to see the UK stepping up to provide leadership, innovative ideas and sustainable financing to deliver for children.