‘Africa must do more to protect children’


Roselyne Sachiti in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Women and their babies queue in a corridor at Bole 17 Health Centre in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. It is Tuesday morning and a cacophony of crying babies getting different vaccine jabs can be heard from a small room in which vaccinator, Mukuken Tadesse, works. Among the parents in the queue is a civil engineer, Besrat Belai, a father of one who has brought in his 10-month old baby for polio vaccination.

Waking up at 6:30 am each time to accompany his wife and child to the clinic for vaccinations is no big deal for the 35-year old father as he has been doing this since his wife was pregnant. In fact, he enjoys the experience.

“I take a day off work whenever I have to accompany my wife and baby to the clinic. It is important for me to be there because I am part of the family and should care.

“I was there when my wife gave birth. I saw her suffering and in pain and told myself I will not miss any of our son’s vaccinations,” said Belai bottle feeding baby.

He even knows how his baby responds to each vaccination.

“He cried very much when he had the 45 days vaccination. My wife and I did not know what to do,” he added.

He is one of a few men who accompany their wives and babies to the health centre.

In many African countries men usually take a back seat when it comes to health issues like immunisation of children.

Ensuring children are immunised has been a woman’s role yet the participation of men is also important.

An important public health intervention, vaccination has helped many African children live to celebrate their fifth birthday and when such knowledge trickles down to men, results can be exciting.

With infections such as meningitis going down from over 250 000 during the outbreak in 1996 to just 80 confirmed cases in 2015 among African countries that had not yet conducted mass immunisation campaigns and among those unvaccinated, according to PATH, vaccines have proved to be a best buy in global health.

Political will is important if goals set on immunisation are to be realised.

African leaders, including ministers of health, finance, and other line ministries, who are gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, between February 24 and 25, 2016, for the Ministerial Conference on Immunisation in Africa – the first-ever ministerial-level meeting with a singular focus on ensuring that people across the continent get access to life-saving vaccines – are speaking with one voice.

There is a lot of work to be done to ensure sustainable domestic funding of immunisation programmes.

The conference – hosted by the World Health Organisation Regional Offices for Africa (AFRO) and the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) in conjunction with the African Union Commission – will provide a powerful platform for African policymakers and advocates 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.

It also comes at a time countries, especially those that have attained middle class status, have been urged to increase investment in immunisation and start making preparations to finance activities from their own national budgets and move away from donor funding.

“The ministerial conference is a unique opportunity to secure buy-in at the highest levels for prioritising immunisation across the continent,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

“With strong commitment from everyone, we can make universal access to immunisation a reality.”

In collaboration with the ministerial conference, WHO and PATH on Monday hosted an event celebrating the success of the Meningitis Vaccine Project, which resulted in the first tailor-made vaccine for use against meningitis A in the 26 African countries in the meningitis belt. The event convened representatives from those countries and immunisation partners.

Since the ground-breaking MenAfriVac® vaccine was introduced in 2010, more than 230 million people in 16 countries have been protected, resulting in the control and near elimination of deadly meningitis A disease outbreaks across the meningitis belt.

Over the past five years, 50 countries in Africa have successfully introduced at least one new vaccine into their immunisation programmes, yet many African countries have been slow to make progress on other nationally agreed immunisation targets, and one in five children in the region still does not receive the vaccines they need.

In 2014, nearly 8 million infants (21 percent) on the African continent did not receive the required three doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine, a strong indicator that health systems are under-equipped and underfunded to deliver other vaccines and health care services.

For example, according to Gavi, Vaccine Alliance, Zimbabwe’s overall DTP3 coverage declined by 4 percentage points in July 2015.

Other countries whose percentage points declined include Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire.

“We know that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective solutions in global health and, as a continent, we must do more to accelerate progress and reach more children,” said Dr Ala Alwan, WHO Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

“Vaccinating children against life-threatening diseases is a great investment in socioeconomic development in Africa and the world as a whole.”

The ministerial conference is expected to convene more than 500 political leaders, technical experts and advocates from across Africa and globally.

Ministers of health and other line ministers will play an important role in expanding access across the continent. Ministers of finance will also play a critical role in driving vaccine access.

A new report issued at the conference by the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean Region shows that despite considerable progress in expanding access to vaccines in Africa, one in five children on the continent still do not receive life-saving immunisations. Africa’s routine immunisation coverage of 80 percent is the lowest of any region in the world.

Titled “Fulfilling a promise: Ensuring immunisation for all in Africa”, the report is the first to summarise immunisation progress and challenges across the continent since global leaders declared the Decade of Vaccines and launched the 2011-2020 Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP).

“We can and must do more to protect all our children from devastating illnesses – not only because it is our responsibility to ensure healthier futures for our citizens, but also because it is a smart economic decision,” said Dr Kesetebirhan Admasu, Minister of Health for Ethiopia.

Former Tanzanian President, Jikaya Kikwete who is also the Gavi immunisation Ambassador for Africa, said the continent could win over all preventable diseases.

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