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WHO, partners urge stronger action to accelerate childhood vaccination in Africa

By Vincent Ashitey
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With one in five children in Africa still missing basic, life-saving vaccines, World Health Organization (WHO) and partners are calling for accelerated action to reach all children and put the continent back on track to achieve the Immunization Agenda 2030 goals towards reducing illness and deaths due to vaccine-preventable diseases.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic reversed immunization gains, with the number of zero-dose children rising by 24% in 2022 compared with 2019 and driving up the cumulative total (2019–2022) to an estimated 28 million children – nearly half the global figure.

In the African region, only 13 out of 47 countries have met the global target of 90% coverage for the first dose of Diphtheria, Tetanus toxoid and Pertussis-containing vaccines (DTP1). There has been a marked decrease in the number of children receiving crucial immunization, including DTP3 and measles-containing vaccine, underscoring the disruptive impact of the pandemic on Africa's immunization services.

The call to step up vaccination efforts in the continent came during a WHO-led side-event titled “Putting Africa back on track to achieve the goals of the Immunization Agenda 2030” at the 3rd International Conference on Public Health in Africa (CPHIA) 2023 in Lusaka, Zambia, held from 27 to 30 November 2023.

The Immunization Agenda 2030, a strategy endorsed during the WHO World Health Assembly in 2020 and later adapted into a regional framework for implementation in 2021, seeks to reduce mortality and morbidity from vaccine-preventable diseases, ensure equitable access to vaccines and strengthen immunization within primary health care.

Zambia's Minister of Health, Hon Dr Sylvia Masebo, stressed the need for continued efforts to keep Africa on track, including building technical capacity, reviewing the Expanded Programme on Immunization policies, and building on lessons learned from the COVID-19 response to strengthen primary healthcare and promote immunization. She also acknowledged the instrumental role of partners like WHO, UNICEF, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in achieving zero-dose targets and expresses Zambia's support for further collaboration to strengthen Africa's progress towards health goals.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, called for stronger collaboration by all to put the region back on track to meet the vaccination targets.

“Governments, healthcare institutions, technology companies and civil society organizations must join forces, leveraging their expertise and resources to achieve regional immunization goals,” Dr Moeti said. “By working together and tapping into our collective strengths, we can reach and vaccinate every child.”

Dr Jean Kaseya, Director-General of Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, highlighted the life-saving impact of vaccines in Africa. He emphasized the need to renew commitment to universal health coverage and robust primary health care to ensure sustainable immunization programmes. He stressed the importance of community-level leadership and called for accelerated action to support local vaccine manufacturing. He applauded the efforts by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and expressed anticipation for the African Vaccination Accelerator, which aims to invest over $1 billion in African vaccine manufacturers.

The side-event at the CPHIA proposed actions to accelerate the Big Catch-Up vaccination campaign. The proposals include ensuring strong pollical commitment at the country level; optimizing resources through innovations like single-dose vaccines and integration with other health programmes; elimination of health disparities to ensure equitable and affordable vaccine access; expansion of multi-sectoral partnerships, particularly with communities, for more efficient immunization service delivery; and funding mobilization and prioritization for immunization programmes.

Keynote speakers during the event included Hon Dr Masebo, Dr Moeti, Dr Kaseya, Mr David Marlow, Interim Chief Executive Officer, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Ms Lieke van de Wiel, Deputy Director of UNICEF in the Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Office.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of World Health Organization (WHO).