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Every child deserves a healthy start in life

Seth Berkley

Published: Updated:

The fact that millions of children under five still die of vaccine-preventable diseases like tetanus, diphtheria, rotavirus diarrhea and pneumococcal disease is profoundly unjust. The GAVI Alliance is committed to saving children’s lives and preventing disease by increasing access to immunization in developing countries. Since 2000, GAVI has prevented more than 5.5 million deaths from killer diseases – around 1.5 million of them in Member States of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Prior to the creation of GAVI, it was normal to have a delay of 10-15 years before a new vaccine reached people in developing countries. For example, the vaccine against hepatitis B was first introduced in Italy in 1982, but it took another 12 years before it was introduced in a low-income country, Zimbabwe. Part of the role of the GAVI Alliance – a public-private partnership between the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank, developing and donor countries, and vaccine manufacturers – is to bridge that gap.
The Global Vaccine Summit, being held this week in Abu Dhabi, will highlight how far we have come in accelerating access to vaccines in developing countries and the challenges that lie ahead in ensuring that all children, no matter where they live, are protected against life-threatening diseases. The Summit will also make the case that investing in vaccines provides excellent value for money.

Investment in global health

Vaccines are one of the most cost-effective investments in global health. For less than U.S. $23, we can fully immunize children with the 11 vaccines recommended globally for this demographic by the WHO. We know that children who don’t get sick do not require medical treatment or care, which carry substantial costs for families and societies in terms of both time and money. Children who are protected from disease also miss less school and do better in tests. Vaccines are not just about saving lives, but ensuring that children grow up to be healthy, educated and productive members of society.

Vaccines are not just about saving lives, but ensuring that children grow up to be healthy, educated and productive members of society

Seth Berkley

When I was on the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar last December visiting health clinics, I spoke to parents who brought their children to be vaccinated and heard first-hand how vaccines are making a positive difference in their lives. I was also very impressed with the health workers I met at Fuoni Primary Health Unit. They are the true heroes of immunization, doing what it takes to ensure that children, even in the most remote areas, are reached with vaccines.
I also heard about places near the Arusha National Park, where nurses often have to undertake quite dangerous trips to reach children in the Maasai tribes, whose continual movements may prevent their parents from hearing about the vaccine clinics. Braving lion-infested savannahs, wading through rivers and trekking across terrain too rugged even for 4x4 vehicles, these incredible nurses quite literally go the extra mile.

In addition to funding immunization programs, GAVI supports health systems strengthening programs in countries (including training of health workers) to ensure that vaccines are delivered where they are needed most, often in the most remote areas.

To date, GAVI has supported 73 countries in immunizing an additional 370 million children, who might not otherwise have had access to vaccines. Of these, 143 million children were in 33 OIC Member States.

Immunization in Islamic countries

The top five OIC countries that have received the most GAVI support to date are Pakistan, Bangladesh, Uganda, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Pakistan is the single largest recipient of GAVI funds worldwide with over U.S. $460 million disbursed since 2000. More than 36 million Pakistani children have been vaccinated against killer diseases such as pneumonia, and an additional 43 million children will be vaccinated by 2020.

In the Gulf, Yemen - the poorest OIC country in the region - has received over U.S. $115 million from GAVI since 2001. Just last year, in the face of a humanitarian crisis, Yemen introduced the rotavirus vaccine in its routine immunization program, protecting infants from the leading cause of severe diarrhea, which is often fatal for children under five. Health centers in Yemen were packed with families who came to get their children vaccinated against rotavirus. This is an inspiring example of a fragile country making immunization a priority under difficult circumstances.

A recent global health success came with the development of MenAfriVac®, a vaccine against meningitis A, a terrible disease which can kill people within 48 hours and leave many survivors with serious disabilities. With GAVI support, more than 100 million people in Africa’s “meningitis belt” have been vaccinated so far. The meningitis belt stretches through 26 countries from Senegal and Gambia in the West to Ethiopia in the East, including Sierra Leone, Chad, and Nigeria.

We have come a long way since 2000 and children born in developing countries today have a much greater chance of receiving life-saving vaccines than they did a decade ago, but much work remains to be done. More than 22 million children, mainly in developing countries, are still not vaccinated against common, but life-threatening diseases. This has to change - every child deserves a healthy start in life.

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Seth Berkley joined the GAVI Alliance as CEO in August 2011. Prior to this, Dr. Berkley was the founder, president and CEO for 15 years of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Before founding IAVI, he served as associate director in the Health Sciences Division at The Rockefeller Foundation. He has been recognized by TIME magazine as one of the “100 Most Influential People in the World” and has consulted or worked in more than 25 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.