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Immunisation: How to save a life

Step one: invest in the greatest medical intervention of our time – immunisation

Are you surprised?

For children and the squeamish, immunisation is the stuff of nightmares – especially for those unfortunate souls who catch a glimpse of the needle first. But those excruciating seconds are well-worth the trade-off. Just one tiny jab and a colourful Band-Aid later, and the body is protected against some of the world’s deadliest diseases and illnesses.

For a country, immunisation does an abundance of economic and societal good. To name a few of the benefits:

  • improvements in children’s cognitive skills, physical strength and performance at school
  • increased economic productivity and a reduction in lost working days
  • greater resilience nationwide against epidemics.

What’s more, with every $1 investment in vaccination yielding a return of $16–44, immunisation is one of the most successful, cost-effective global health interventions ever. Not to mention the investment in family life that enables parents to know that their children are safe from some of the deadliest diseases in the world.

But despite the cornucopia of benefits that comes with vaccines, immunisation rates across the world, including in Europe, have begun to stagnate.

What’s the hold-up? That’s precisely the kind of questioning behind the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vaccines for All’s latest report: The Next Decade of Vaccines.

The report reveals that 1 child in 10 currently receives no vaccinations whatsoever. That’s a horrifying statistic when you consider the numbers of children affected: every year 19.9 million children under the age of 1 are left unimmunised. Children born in conflict-affected states and to poor families in middle-income countries are most at risk. Left behind, they are easy pickings for deadly – yet largely preventable – diseases, such as pneumonia, now the biggest infectious killer of children worldwide.

While reaching children in fragile, conflict-affected states remains a logistical challenge, children in middle-income countries are left behind because of deeply engrained inequalities that are built into healthcare systems. It’s revealing that the three countries with the highest burden of child deaths from pneumonia are India, Nigeria and Pakistan – all middle-income countries.

What can countries do to address this injustice? The short is answer is much, much more.

And as I set out below, given its position as a global leader on vaccines, the UK’s role is critical.

Step two: transition away from user-fees and towards universal health coverage

Immunisation can help save lives, but sadly the primary healthcare systems needed to deliver immunisation are not always within the reach of all children. Countries should strengthen their healthcare systems as a matter of urgency, making progress towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC) – ensuring citizens have access to an essential package of good-quality healthcare, free at the point of use, that prioritises those furthest behind. Realising this vision calls for increased public investment in their health systems and the removal of out-of-pocket expenses, which are one of the greatest health inequalities.

The UK government is a global leader in vaccines and immunisation. UK Aid has helped immunise 76 million children against preventable diseases, saving 1.4 million lives. As the biggest donor of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the UK has a critical role to play in helping to drive a global vaccine agenda that prioritises reaching the most deprived and marginalised children.

The UK could complement its commitment to Gavi with action to address healthcare inequalities that leave children unimmunised – namely, by supporting countries’ and global efforts to drive progress on UHC. Our beloved NHS is the oldest embodiment of the principle of health for all. It’s only right then that the UK government supports other countries to make progress on UHC, or on achieving ‘health for all’).

This year a number of high-level discussions will take place on UHC. As a pioneer in UHC and a global leader in vaccines, the UK government should utilise these key political moments – such as the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting, the UN High-Level Meeting on UHC and the G20 – to champion ‘the fully immunised child’ and UHC.

The UK must ensure that these high-level gatherings result in tangible commitments from donors and development partners to support nationally driven UHC plans and strengthen domestic resource mobilisation.

So that no child is ever again left behind unimmunised.



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