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Advocating for Access to Lifesaving Vaccines

Dr. Kathy Neuzil, Program Leader, Vaccine Access and Delivery at PATH. 

Recently, the Washington Post reported on the struggles of convincing those who are skeptical of vaccines to see their value and take advantage of the health benefits. While the story was focused on the flu vaccine in the United States, it could have been about any vaccine in just about any country.

More than half of the US population forgo the flu vaccine even though more than six percent of deaths each year are the result of either pneumonia or influenza. The problem is not unique to the United States, as shown by the same trends in the United Kingdom.     

While opting out of vaccines in the United States or Europe isn’t smart and is certainly risky, most have access to nearby, quality medical care. In other countries, especially in Asia and Africa, not having access to lifesaving vaccines has tragic results.  

Is our skepticism of vaccines making it harder to get vaccines where they are needed most?

Many, including me, would say yes; this is why it is so important that the people and health care stakeholders in the countries of greatest need know the facts about the lifesaving potential of vaccines and feel equipped and empowered to persuade their governments to invest in vaccines for every child.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, has saved millions of lives by supporting countries’ vaccine efforts. Building on their success, and continuing to counter skepticism that is not based on science, requires committed advocacy to national governments and global donors to ensure that the right vaccines are procured and delivered to those who are hardest to reach. 

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A health worker explains the importance of immunisation to a gathered crowd in Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: GAVI/Olivier Asselin

Each year, more than 2 million children around the world die from just four illnesses: malariapneumoniadiarrhea caused by rotavirus, and Japanese encephalitis (JE). The good news is that we now have available vaccines for pneumonia, rotavirus, and JE, and a vaccine for malaria is on the near horizon. Through collaboration with national stakeholders and advocates across government, civil society, private industry, and the public, the available vaccines are being used and saving lives. 

To understand the positive impact just one vaccine can have, let’s look at JE—perhaps the least known of the top child killers. Often called brain fever, JE infects about 70,000 each year, mainly children in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific. One in three don’t survive, and those who do often suffer neurological damage that can result in paralysis and seizures.

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Vaccination is the only way to prevent JE, but a vaccine for this disease has not been widely available until recently. In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) approved a vaccine developed by Chengdu Institute of Biological Products in China, in partnership with PATH. It is the first vaccine developed in China that has been approved by the WHO. Now, this vaccine that has already protected 200 million people can be used everywhere JE is a threat.  

This milestone would not have been possible without developing the evidence and helping policymakers understand the burden of JE disease and the effectiveness and value of the JE vaccine. Those of us who are researchers, scientists, and clinicians have strong allies in the national advocates who help persuade their governments to invest in lifesaving vaccines.

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Learn more about PATH’s vaccine work here, and advocacy support services here

Kathy’s blog was kindly written in support of the Gavi pledging conference, which will take place on January 27th 2015, in Berlin.

To find out more about this opportunity to reach every child with life-saving vaccines, visit the event’s home page

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