Measles: Who will be the new heroes?

World Immunization Week (WIW) 2019 gives an important moment to celebrate the amazing impact of vaccines and raise awareness of their ability to save millions of lives every year. This year, Alwaleed Philanthropies joins UNICEF and partners in celebrating Vaccine Heroes: men and women around the world who strive to ensure that their communities are safer and healthier because of vaccinations.

Yet, as we celebrate, the global health community is also facing challenges in the fight against preventable diseases. We need to ask what new actions governments, nongovernmental organizations and society can take to promote and enable greater vaccine use.

Enduring heroes, enduring challenges

Alwaleed Philanthropies has long supported the battle against disease and in 2017 entered into a $50 million partnership with UNICEF to support its work vaccinating more than fifty-one million children in fourteen countries, alongside the four other founding partners of the Measles and Rubella Initiative (M&RI). M&RI is a one-of-its-kind global public-private partnership that leads and coordinates efforts to achieve a world without measles and rubella.

Being part of this partnership has led me to develop a deep admiration for these “Vaccine Heroes”. Their determination to overcome enduring barriers to immunization is built on two priorities: awareness and access.

A lady in black sqauts to play with an infant held by its mother.
© Alwaleed Philanthropies/UNICEF LaosHRH Princess Lamia visits families in communities in Laos that have benefited from measles immunization campaigns.

I saw these heroes’ efforts first hand when visiting a UNICEF-supported initiative in Bankok Sengsuliya, Laos. Heroes come in all forms including: health workers who travel by boat, motorbike and foot to reach children in some of the hardest-to-reach places in the world; parents who fight unrelentingly for their children to be vaccinated; and local groups, such as the Laos Women’s Union, who work year-round to educate parents about the importance of measles vaccinations in more than 10,000 villages.

Together these groups create a web of support, equipping each other to tackle disease head-on. I’m proud to have helped empower them through our partnership with UNICEF and M&RI, and because we’ve not solved the challenges related to vaccine access, call on other philanthropies and companies to join us in this effort.

New challenges, new heroes?

Despite the availability of safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine, we find ourselves in the middle of a global measles crisis. So far this year, 110,000 measles cases have been reported. This is an increase of over 300 per cent from the number reported during the same period last year.

This is mainly a problem of access and failure to vaccinate. Most of the children missing out on vaccination live in countries that don’t have a robust healthcare system, lack resources or are affected by conflict. But public uncertainty, including in high- and middle-income countries, about the necessity and safety of vaccination is also threatening hard fought gains against measles.

A lady in black sqauts to play with an infant held by its mother.
© Alwaleed Philanthropies/UNICEF LaosUNICEF’s partnership with Al Waleed Philanthropies has helped purchase 700,000 vaccines for immunization campaigns in Laos.

This uncertainty is fueled by the same concerns affecting parents who chose to vaccinate: the desire to protect the health of their children. When my children were young, this was also my primary concern. Before I made any decision about their health and wellbeing, I consulted widely. I wanted to make sure I was informed of the facts.

But parents are now bombarded with more information than ever, some of it based on science and, unfortunately, some of it not. In today’s digital age, myths can spread faster than even the most contagious measles virus.

All this can make the process of decision making overwhelming. Yet the facts remain: vaccines work, and the science proving so is without question.

Vaccinations have saved almost a million lives a year for the past two decades. To continue our progress, we need new heroes, both at the highest level of government, the corporate world charities, as well as at the grassroots level. We must all bear a responsibility to share the facts about the power of vaccines in our day to day lives.

We can all be ‘vaccine heroes’. Let’s work together for a world where preventable diseases are indeed prevented.

 

Princess Lamia Bint Majid Al Saud is the Secretary General of Alwaleed Philanthropies. Through the foundation’s support, UNICEF and partners are delivering millions of doses of measles-containing vaccines to children around the world. The funding is also supporting vital supplementary activities such as outreach, capacity building and logistics, catalysing life-saving immunization campaigns.

 

Reported cases of measles rose by 300 per cent in the first three months of 2019. What’s causing the recent outbreaks?

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