Immunization is a hugely powerful yet simple way to protect children’s fundamental right to survival and health. Vaccines protect children under the age of five against diseases that are potentially life threatening, saving up to three million lives a year.
The 2014 progress report on the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) – the road map to universal immunization by 2020 – shows that progress on vaccination rates is slowing. The report highlights persistent gaps in coverage that threaten the lives of millions of children, especially the most vulnerable and excluded.
Nearly one fifth of the world’s infants still miss out on basic vaccines that could mean the difference between life and death. Despite needing immunization the most, the poorest and most marginalized children in the world consistently miss out. How can something so life changing still remain beyond the reach of so many?
Missing the mark – a critical unfinished agenda for child health
With progress off track on five of six targets in the GVAP, we are at risk of failing to provide vaccination for all children. Among the targets that haven’t been reached is the elimination of potentially deadly diseases such as maternal and neonatal tetanus, measles and rubella.
We have also not brought about an end of new polio infections. Between 2011 and 2013, there has been little improvement on national coverage for the essential diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine – a crucial indicator for the plan’s success. One third of countries around the world have yet to reach the target of vaccinating 90 per cent of their children with three lifesaving doses of this vaccine.
Getting back on track
The causes for this lack of progress are complex and include inadequate resources, low prioritization, inconsistent supply and high prices. However, the progress report also outlines clear solutions to get back on track. Though we risk failing to meet the deadlines established in GVAP, it is not too late to expand the lifesaving reach of vaccination and to revive our commitment to universal immunization.
To protect the 21 million children who weren’t vaccinated in 2013, we need strengthened commitments from governments and partners to prioritize immunization programmes and increase funding for improving coverage and managing vaccine supplies.
The first step is to reach children who are completely unvaccinated and better protect under-vaccinated children. This work involves strengthening the general health system with enough skilled healthcare workers, records, facilities, and cold chain capacity. Perhaps the most essential step, however, is political will: these targets can all be achieved if countries prioritize them.
The success of the GVAP is truly a matter of life and death; 1.5 million children still die every year from diseases that can be prevented by vaccines. Reviving our commitment to the plan will make universal immunization a reality for future generations, save countless lives and help children around the world reach their full potential.
Jos Vandelaer is the Chief of Immunization in Programme Division, UNICEF headquarters.