Immunizing Africa, committing to a healthy future for all
The outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa underlines one of the biggest threats to the continent: Disease. This includes many illnesses such as measles, meningitis A and whooping cough that are easily prevented in wealthier countries through routine immunization. In Africa and in the countries that do not have access to those vaccines, the diseases claim the lives of tens of thousands each year.
In fact, while four out of five children globally now receive at least a basic set of vaccines, there still are 1.5 million children who die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases, mostly in poor countries. We must reach that fifth child.
In late May, in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, African leaders endorsed the Immunise Africa 2020 declaration, committing themselves to invest in a healthy and sustainable future for all of their nations’ children and to protect them from disease.
Such statements are important because only through the power of our convictions can we truly bring about positive change.
It is not easy in countries with undeveloped transportation infrastructure, intermittent electricity, inadequate technology and, sometimes, war. Nevertheless change is occurring. Since 2001, there have been no fewer than 140 new vaccine launches in Africa, thanks to commitments by their leaders alongside support from my organization, the GAVI Alliance, which brings together UNICEF, the World Health Organization, World Bank, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, private sector and civil society, as well as the Global Poverty Project. Working together, we have seen a significant increase in immunization coverage in Africa — from 10% in 1980 to 72% in 2012.
This has not been an easy task, and challenges remain. Vaccines must be kept cool to maintain their potency during transport, often to remote areas. Many clinics do not have sufficient or functioning equipment to keep vaccines cool. There also are shortages of data-collection tools to keep accurate records, making it hard to know if a child has received a vaccine. It can even be hard to alert a parent to bring a child to a local vaccination session to be immunized.
Now, Africa’s 50-plus nations will commit more than $700 million directly toward the cost of childhood vaccines through the GAVI Alliance for our 2016 to 2020 strategy cycle. This would make the continent of Africa among the largest investors in immunization programs supported by our Alliance, whose leading individual donors include the United Kingdom, Norwegian and U.S. governments, as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This kind of commitment sends strong signals of increasing ownership by African leaders and a shift in developmental aid away from the traditional model of charity toward one built on partnership.
The GAVI Alliance was built on this model and, since it was founded in 2000, it has helped immunize 440 million people, which will save 6 million lives. Now, there is a real opportunity to do more. The Alliance has a roadmap to ramp up its activities and immunize another 300 million children by 2020. This will avert the deaths of an additional 5 million to 6 million people.
At a time when the economies of many donors are still in a delicate state of recovery, it will take commitment and conviction by donors to achieve this goal, alongside the resolve of African leaders and support of global citizens.
The United States, for example, has been a major supporter of childhood immunization, contributing $1.2 billion to the GAVI Alliance since 2000. This year, the Obama administration has requested a record $200 million for the Alliance for fiscal year 2015. While Congress must finalize this level of funding, both the House and Senate have included $200 million in their respective funding bills.
None of us can do it alone. Through partnership, we can help protect the world’s most vulnerable children.
Dr. Seth Berkley is the CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private global health partnership committed to increasing access to immunization in poor countries.
Philippe Brault is an award-winning photographer and filmmaker based in Paris.