Protected Together: Why we need vaccines to achieve Universal Health Coverage and Health for All
Nearly 40 years ago, family dinners at my house were occasionally dominated by my Dad’s stories about smallpox eradication or the latest developments in vaccines against cholera or dysentery. And while he loved telling graphic tales of biblical diseases, the teenage version of me was caught between a certain level of fascination and the desire to slink away from the table and be part of a “normal” family dinner somewhere.
A lot has changed since then. Now I’m doing my share of talking diseases at the dinner table, and my daughters are the ones who greet my stories with the same alternating captivation and indifference. However, here’s something they’re excited to talk about: World Immunization Week — the annual touchpoint when avowed vaccine nerds like myself take to the airwaves, hashtag the heck out of our social media feeds and espouse the cost-effective, life-saving wonders of vaccines to anyone within earshot.
Held during the last week of April, this year’s World Immunization Week centered on the theme of Protected Together: Vaccines Work — a message reinforcing that we can ensure vaccines reach the people who need them most, and in doing so, lay the foundation for a strong primary health care system and a path to reach everyone, everywhere with quality health services.
To some, vaccines and basic health services might seem like new initiatives. But in truth, they’ve been with us longer than the time since I first heard about smallpox over broccoli. This is partially thanks to the landmark Alma Ata Declaration of 1978 which established “Health for All”, emphasized the importance of primary health care and introduced the holistic view of health now considered orthodoxy. Countless declarations, agreements and commitments have since come and gone, but Alma Ata’s legacy lives on today — underpinning our work in global immunization and underscoring the notion that achieving the ideal of health for everyone requires that routine immunization reach everyone.
Here’s why: Immunization alone is estimated to save 2–3 million lives a year — which is like protecting the entire population of Chicago or Nairobi with little more than some drops in the mouth or pricks of a needle. Vaccines are also one of the most economically savvy investments for governments to make. Studies show that for every $1 spent on childhood immunization, an astounding $44 in economic and social benefits — like prevented hospital costs — are returned. The financial benefit from immunization also extends to people’s wallets. If immunization coverage in low- and middle-income countries increases by 2030, we could prevent a whopping 24 million people from falling into financial hardship due to health expenses. We could also fulfill a core aim of the emerging Universal Health Coverage movement — which is now a priority of the World Health Organization, a key part of the Sustainable Development Goals and a recent addition to government health plans, from Kenya to Japan.
Even though the goal of Health for All has been with us awhile, we have made significant progress in the meantime, with immunization playing a huge part. Global immunization efforts have not only led to the eradication of smallpox (thanks, Dad!) — they’ve halved the number of child deaths since 1990. And in the world’s poorest countries, immunization efforts have brought life-saving vaccines to more than 640 million children and helped introduce affordable, modern vaccines to combat the two leading causes of child death: diarrhea and pneumonia.
It doesn’t stop there. Vaccines are essential tools when an aggressive response is needed to combat disease outbreaks. Just take the recent Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which saw swift action and the targeted use of a new Ebola vaccine, which as of June 1 has been used to protect more than 800 people at high risk. Or take the recent spate of cholera outbreaks across Africa. Days after World Immunization Week wrapped, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, WHO and Ministries of Health launched the world’s largest cholera vaccination campaign, set to reach two million people in Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and South Sudan by mid-June with oral cholera vaccines sourced from the global stockpile. It’s an unprecedented campaign and one that stems directly from efforts to ensure there’s enough vaccine supply to address such eventualities.
With progress such as this, there’s reason to believe that vaccines will only see increased investment and prioritization in the years to come. However, we can’t simply take that for granted. As in this year’s World Immunization Week and those that follow, we must continue to reassert — to both the public and health decision-makers — that vaccines and routine immunization keep us Protected Together, on the path to Universal Health Coverage and one step closer to achieving Health for All.
To champion vaccines on social media, make sure to use the hashtags #VaccinesWork, #UniversalHealth and #HealthforAll.