Abimbola Akosile 

With one in five African children lacking access to all needed and basic life-saving vaccines, ministers of health and other line ministers of countries have committed themselves to keep immunisation at the forefront of efforts to reduce child mortality, morbidity and disability.

At a landmark Ministerial Conference on Immunisation in Africa held from 24-25 February, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia the ministers signed a declaration to promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against vaccine-preventable diseases and to close the immunisation gap by 2020.

The conference, which was hosted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Offices for Africa (AFRO) and the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) in conjunction with the African Union Commission (AUC), was the first-ever ministerial-level gathering with a singular focus on ensuring that children across the continent can get access to life-saving vaccines.

“Our children are our most precious resource, yet one in five fail to receive all the immunisations they need to survive and thrive, leaving millions vulnerable to preventable disease,” said Minister of Health for Ethiopia, H.E. Dr. Kesetebirhan Admasu. “This is not acceptable. African children’s lives matter. We must work together to ensure the commitments we make in Addis Ababa translate into results,” Admasu added.

A new report issued at the conference paints a mixed picture on vaccine access, delivery systems and immunisation equity in Africa. Routine immunisation coverage has increased considerably across Africa since 2000, measles deaths declined by 86 per cent between 2000 and 2014, and the introduction of new vaccines has been a major success.

However, one in five children still do not receive all of the most basic vaccines they need, three critical diseases – measles, rubella and neonatal tetanus – remain endemic, and many countries have fragile health systems that leave immunisation programs vulnerable to shocks.

In June 2016, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, the host country for the conference, HE Hailemariam Desalegn, will present the Addis Ababa Declaration on Immunisation to the African Heads of States at the 26th Summit of the African Union. Support from heads of state will further empower countries to increase efforts to mobilise resources for national immunisation programmes.

The declaration commits countries to increasing domestic financial investments in order to deliver routine immunisations and roll out new vaccines. The economic benefits of immunisation are proven to greatly outweigh the costs, with recent research showing the benefits of preventing illness and lost productivity to be 16 times greater than the required investment in vaccines.

“We all agree that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective solutions in global health. Investing in immunisation programmes will enable African countries to see an outstanding economic benefit,” said Chair of the Gavi Board and former Finance Minister of Nigeria, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. “If we can ensure that all African children can access life-saving vaccines, no matter where they are born, we will have a golden opportunity to create a more prosperous future for communities across our continent,” she added.

The Ministerial Conference convened hundreds of political leaders, technical experts and advocates from across Africa and globally. The conference offered African policymakers and advocates a platform to celebrate progress toward expanding immunisation coverage; discuss strategies for tackling the biggest challenges facing vaccine efforts; foster country ownership for sustainable financing for immunisation; and advocate for greater engagement with all stakeholders to ensure sustainable demand for immunisation.

“The Ministerial Conference achieved its goal of uniting leaders from across Africa behind the single goal of reaching every child with the vaccines they need,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “Now, we will carry this momentum forward from Addis Ababa, stay accountable to our commitments and close the immunisation gap once and for all.”

“With the right mix of political will, financial resources and technical acumen, Africa is positioned to make an incredible leap in immunisation coverage,” said Dr. Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.