Invest in routine immunisation to minimise future disease burden

A child gegts polio vaccine at Moi Lane in Nairobi. [Denish Ochieng, Standard]

Vaccines play an important role in preventing illness and deaths. However, around one fifth of children in Africa do not receive all the necessary vaccines.

As a result, more than 30 million children on the continent under five years of age still suffer from vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs), and over half a million children die from VPDs annually - representing approximately 58 per cent VPD-related deaths worldwide.

Added to this, Covid-19 has resulted in a further disruption of routine childhood immunisations in Africa.

African Vaccination Week is an annual event celebrated during the last week of April, and now more than ever, it is a timely reminder of the importance of immunisations.

Routine vaccinations protect children from illnesses such as measles, mumps, polio, rotaviruses, hepatitis B and meningitis A, amongst others.

Aligned with World Immunisation Week, African Vaccination Week's overarching slogan is: Vaccinated communities, Healthy Communities. The initiative is led and coordinated by the World Health Organisation's Regional Office for Africa, and is focused on strengthening immunisation programmes in the African region by increasing awareness of the importance of every person's need and right to be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.

If immunisation efforts in African are not maintained, there is a risk to reverse progress made, leading to more than 2.4 million deaths and a negative economic impact of $59 billion over the next decade. This is reflected by a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine which notes that completing a set of properly timed vaccinations is key to reducing under-five childhood mortality in sub-Saharan Africa.

The low rates of age-appropriate vaccination directly threaten the progress made in the control and elimination of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) that contributes importantly to improving childhood survival.

While surges in the Covid-19 pandemic placed enormous strain on the continent's health systems, the reality is that if we continue to invest in immunisation, we can protect current and future generations from preventable diseases, and build a healthier, more prosperous world for all.

Subsequently, vaccines also assist in minimising the plight of antimicrobial resistance. Expanding the use of existing vaccines will reduce the use of antibiotics and the

development of resistance. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is increasingly becoming a global concern, including in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) where it is aggravated due to poor hygiene, unreliable water supplies, civil conflicts, and increasing numbers of immunocompromised people.

Since its launch in April 2011, African Vaccination Week has sought to keep immunization high on national and regional agendas and to ignite greater collective action on immunization across the continent, underscoring the role that everyone has to play in this effort.

An important part of this is robust immunisation programmes that can deliver vaccines to everyone in Africa, especially those who are most vulnerable.

Over the years we have learnt that expanding access to vaccines is vital to improving child health and survival; while the COVID pandemic has taught us that responding to outbreaks is not sustainable - it is expensive, ineffective and costs lives. The only sustainable response is prevention, which can only be done by ensuring that everyone is vaccinated with the right vaccines at the right time through the course of their lives.