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Five years at the heart of global immunisation

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Dagfinn makes a new friend at health centre in Cambodia. Photo: Gavi/Luc Forsyth.

Dagfinn Høybråten has served as Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance since 2011, overseeing some monumental achievements in global vaccination programmes for the world’s poorest countries. Here, Dagfinn describes five years of worldwide immunisation – from the heart.


Hanging in the balance: 2011

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Bill Gates at the 2011 fundraising conference. Photo: Paul Hackett/Reuters.

At the time I took over as Board Chair, the Vaccine Alliance had a shortfall of US$ 3.7 billion, and we had no Chief Executive. By the time of the London fundraising conference we had already hired a world class CEO, Dr Seth Berkley, but it was tense. I will never forget the electric atmosphere when we realised that we were going to make our goals. When the final numbers were shared I had to pinch myself: was this really happening? The pledges amounted to US$ 4.3 billion, US$ 600 million more than our request. This took place in a very challenging financial environment. It was a relief: many, many children’s lives depended on that funding.

The human experience: 2012

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Dagfinn and a child at Usa River Health Centre, Arusha, Tanzania in 2012. Photo: Gavi/Tanzania.

My absolute favourite memories remain the faces behind the numbers: the parents and children who receive Gavi vaccines and the health workers who deliver them. One of my first field trips was to Tanzania, where I was asked to address a group of parents in Shambarai village. Some had walked more than 20km to have their children vaccinated.  I will never forget the look on parents’ faces when I explained that Tanzania that very week had introduced new vaccines against two of the country’s biggest child killers – pneumonia and severe diarrhoea.  The mums and dads knew, sometimes from painful experience, that preventable diseases too often claim the lives of young children.

New, essential vaccines: 2013

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Adolescent girls wait for their HPV vaccine in Laos, 2013. Photo: Gavi/Bart Verweij.

In 2013, Gavi also took some hard, but extremely important decisions: first, we added human papillomavirus vaccine against cervical cancer to our portfolio; second, we committed to help introduce the inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in all supported countries as a part of the renewed global effort to eradicate polio. The former was a more expensive vaccine than others, and both presented big implementation challenges. We said that Gavi would support them because the need was – and remains – so great. The Alliance has been true to its word.

All poorest countries & Ebola response: 2014

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A mother gets her child immunised in South Sudan. Photo: Gavi Mike Pflanz.  

This was the year all the world’s 73 poorest countries supported by Gavi managed to introduce the 5-in-1 pentavalent vaccine. Despite ongoing civil conflict, the final country, South Sudan, started protecting its children from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis b and a Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), a major cause of pneumonia and meningitis. The task ahead is to make sure all children within countries get these vaccines, but this was an impressive milestone nonetheless.

I was also proud when it became clear Gavi could play a role in the Ebola response – both in the rebuilding of health systems in affected countries and in ensuring the development and procurement of a vaccine against Ebola to prevent future outbreaks.

The $7.5 billion blockbuster: 2015

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Dagfinn at the fundraising conference in Germany, January 2015. Photo: Gavi/Oscar Seykens.

Another turning point took place earlier this year at our fundraising conference in Berlin. The Vaccine Alliance managed to mobilise US$ 7.5 billion, giving Gavi-supported countries resources to immunise a further 300 million children and save 5 to 6 million lives between 2016 and 2020.

In over 30 years as a public servant, I have had the honour of working for several good causes. However, looking back, I can honestly say that I have never been involved in a single greater mission than Gavi’s: to save children’s lives with vaccines.  What can be more important?

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