CONGO —The World Health Organization (WHO) has revealed that vaccines have saved an estimated 51.2 million lives in Africa over the last five decades, with each infant life saved adding nearly 60 years to life, a significant achievement in public health, according to a recent report.

These achievements have been made possible by the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI), a WHO effort begun in 1974 to ensure that every child has equitable access to life-saving immunizations, regardless of geographical or socioeconomic status.

The research, which assesses vaccines’ life-saving impact, was released on April 24 as part of this year’s African Vaccination Week and World Immunization Week, entitled “Safeguarding Our Future: Humanly Possible,” which runs from April 24 to April 30.

With ongoing support from WHO, UNICEF, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and other partners, most countries in the region now provide antigens for 13 vaccine-preventable diseases, up from the initial six introduced with the EPI.

Remarkable progress has been made, including a reduction in measles deaths, with an estimated 19.5 million deaths prevented in the last 22 years.

Furthermore, the number of meningitis deaths in the region has decreased by up to 39% between 2000 and 2019.

Maternal and neonatal tetanus are practically eradicated, and after years of concerted effort, the African continent will be certified free of indigenous wild poliovirus in 2022.

The introduction of novel vaccines, such as the pioneering malaria vaccine, and the expansion of existing ones, such as the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, promise a better future for African generations.

Gavi, which was founded in 2000 to increase the impact of the EPI, assists nations in supplying vaccines against a variety of diseases, including cervical cancer and malaria, as well as reacting to outbreaks such as Ebola and cholera.

Despite improvements in vaccine coverage, the region faces problems in reaching and maintaining high immunization rates for the majority of vaccine-preventable diseases.

A significant number of children have yet to get life-saving immunizations, highlighting the need for equitable access to vaccines.

Moreover, the disruptive impact of COVID-19 has further strained immunization efforts, with the region yet to fully recover from its disruptions.

In 2022, coverage for the first and third doses of the diphtheria–tetanus–pertussis-containing vaccine (DTP1 and DTP3, respectively) and the first dose of the measles-containing vaccine (MCV1) in the region was estimated at 80%, 72% and 69%, respectively, which is lower than in 2019.

Only 13 of the 47 countries in the region achieved the global target coverage of 90% or above with DTP3 in 2022.

In his speech, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, emphasized the compelling success story of vaccines, highlighting that millions are alive and healthy today due to vaccine protection.

He stressed the need to sustain and expand vaccine equity to eradicate vaccine-preventable diseases.

UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Etleva Khadilli, celebrated the monumental advances in child survival across Africa in the last fifty years and urged leaders, partners, and donors to safeguard immunization gains, especially in the face of recent setbacks.

Gilles Fagninou, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, went ahead and emphasized the importance of reaching children missed by vaccination programs, particularly those from underserved communities.

For his part, Thabani Maphosa, Managing Director of Country Programs Delivery at Gavi, underscored the transformative impact of vaccines on health and development. 

He advocated for increased investment in immunization to ensure a safe and healthy future for all in the face of rising challenges like climate change and infectious diseases.

Going forward, efforts to bridge gaps in immunization coverage have been intensified through initiatives like the “Big Catch-Up” program.

This program aims to reach underserved or missed children, and innovative programs like the Zero-dose Immunization Programme, targeting communities in conflict and fragile areas.

Further efforts are required to accelerate progress towards the goals of Immunization Agenda 2030, endorsed during the WHO World Health Assembly in 2020.

This aims to reduce mortality and morbidity from vaccine-preventable diseases, ensure equitable access to vaccines, and strengthen immunization within primary healthcare.

A regional framework for implementing the Immunization Agenda has been adopted.

To sustain progress, key strategies must be implemented, including controlling outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, increasing investment in health systems and infrastructure. 

Others include enhancing surveillance systems, addressing vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, bolstering domestic funding, leveraging innovation and technology, and investing in research and development.

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