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The Vaccine Revolution

There has been
an unwritten rule that it can take 15 years or longer between the introduction of
new life-saving vaccines in rich countries and their widespread use in the
poorest nations. It’s a tragic and unnecessary time-lag that has cost the lives
of many millions of children.

But national
celebrations in Ghana this week to mark the introduction of two new vaccines highlight
how this shameful gap is rapidly being closed. It is another exciting chapter
in a story of leadership – and partnership – transforming health in the
developing world.

Ghana, in
fact, already has an impressive immunization program. But it is determined to
go further by protecting against the world’s two biggest killers of children – severe
diarrhea and pneumonia.   

So this
week it is introducing both the rotavirus vaccine which protects against
diarrhea and the pneumococcal vaccine which targets the primary cause of
pneumonia. It is an historic milestone. No other African country has introduced
these vaccines simultaneously. Ghana has every reason to be proud and to
celebrate.

But what is
also significant is that these sophisticated vaccines are being introduced so
soon after their first use in the developed world. The 13 strain pneumococcal
vaccine, for example, was first used in Europe only a couple of years ago. Even
more remarkably, it is already protecting children in 14 other developing
countries.

This is
hugely important. The protective power of vaccines is vital in every society,
rich or poor. But their impact is even greater in developing countries because
the quality of basic health services varies so drastically.

Yet until
recently, the countries which most needed these life-saving vaccines were all
too often the least able to offer this protection to their citizens. Developing
nations could not obtain the vaccines in the quantity they needed at a price
they could afford. The result was not just millions of unnecessary deaths but a
major brake on economic and social development.

But thanks
to the efforts of the GAVI Alliance – an unprecedented partnership of
international agencies such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the
World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, governments in the
developing and developed world, vaccine producers, businesses and philanthropic
foundations- the position has been transformed.  

Huge
strides have been made in lowering vaccine prices and producing quality
vaccines in mass quantities. New producers in developing countries have emerged
to provide more competition and guarantee supplies.   

We have seen increased support from donors
like Norway to help these efforts. Norway was one of the first countries to
support the GAVI Alliance and remains a leading funder – with nearly seven
billion kroner given or pledged to expand vaccination programmes. Norway’s
strong bipartisan political support for immunisation and global health is an
inspiration for others.

Developing
countries like Ghana have also made vaccination a major health priority,
putting in place the systems to deliver immunization programs and helping fund the
cost through their own resources. Almost all low income countries in the GAVI
Alliance are now helping meet the cost of their vaccines.   

The result
has been that since the GAVI Alliance was set up in 2000, some 325 million
additional children have been vaccinated against a wide variety of diseases,
helping prevent over five million early deaths. Immunization rates in the
world’s poorest countries have risen to an average of 80 per cent. Ghana itself
now vaccinates 94 percent of its children — higher than in some richer
countries.

The impact will go far beyond the immediate
benefits to the children and their families. Healthier children can attend
school and learn more effectively. They lead more productive lives. It is estimated
that a one year increase in life expectancy increases labor productivity by
four percent.

And compared to the cost
of treating a disease and the loss of economic productivity over the long-term,
vaccines provide tremendous value for money. They are easy to administer and,
in most cases, offer permanent immunity. For example, for around 40 kroner three
doses of the new pentavalent vaccine being used in many developing nations protects
a child for life against five major deadly diseases. 

I am
delighted to be visiting Ghana this week as part of the celebrations and share
the excitement about what is being achieved through vaccinations to improve
global health.

I have
worked in this field as a doctor and scientist now for over three decades. I
don’t think there has ever been a time when vaccines present greater opportunities.
 We can, for example, now vaccinate against
the main causes of liver and cervical cancer. We could even be close to effective
vaccines to combat malaria and eventually HIV/AIDS.

This week’s
vaccine introductions in Ghana show just what can be achieved through
commitment, leadership and partnership. But we can’t rest while 1.7 million
children – one every 20 seconds – are still dying every year from diseases
which we can prevent. We must step up our efforts so the vaccine revolution
reaches every child everywhere. 

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