By Fara Ndiaye, Deputy Executive Director at Speak Up Africa
For over a year, the COVID-19 pandemic has stolen the focus of political debate and media headlines around the world. Yet, in recent months, as vaccines against COVID-19 have emerged, the pandemic has helped bring age-old issues related to vaccination against infectious disease back to the fore.
Initially introduced in a dozen African countries in February, COVID-19 vaccination campaigns have already proven effective in limiting the spread of the disease among the most vulnerable. These campaigns, however, also provide an opportunity to remind people why existing routine immunization programs are so vital. On the African continent, the proportion of people without access to essential vaccines is still too high, with millions dying from vaccine preventable diseases each year. Ensuring equitable access to vital health services and drastically closing the vaccination gap in Africa therefore remains a key challenge.
Each year, improving access to vaccines among the most vulnerable has underpinned our strategy to tackle disease in Africa. Inequitable access to vaccines has been a hot topic throughout the COVID-19 crisis, and we must now leverage these challenges to reduce inequalities in access to routine immunization services. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), routine immunization programs prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths per year. Yet by furthering our efforts to increase access to vaccines, we could prevent an additional 1.5 million deaths each year.
Partnership will be critical as we fight to improve access to, and uptake of, vaccines in Africa. Importantly, we must work with civil society organizations who act as crucial intermediaries between the public and private sectors to bring together the preventative tools and the funding necessary to strengthen African health systems. In a context where the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing inequalities and uncertainty, we must do everything possible to stop the spread of the vaccine-preventable diseases that continue to affect the health of our populations and accelerate immunization efforts. More than ever, public authorities and services will depend on financial and technical support from the private sector to sustainably finance immunization programs and strengthen services to provide protection against the continent’s most common diseases.
At Speak Up Africa, routine immunization continues to be a top priority for us as we work to champion action that will reform public health. Guaranteeing access to vaccines for all, with particular emphasis on young children and the most vulnerable, remains a key objective. Still today, 19.9 million children do not have access to essential vaccines they need to ensure a happy and healthy future. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, our collective commitments and actions to boost access to immunization have never been more urgent.
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