Message by the Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO – April 2024

Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO

Kate O’Brien, Director of the Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals at WHO

In a groundbreaking study published by The Lancet and led by WHO, it has been quantified that global immunization efforts have saved an astonishing 154 million lives over the past five decades.

Vaccination against 14 diseases over the past five decades—ranging from diphtheria to yellow fever—has played a pivotal role in slashing infant mortality rates by 40 percent on a global scale. Remarkably, in the African Region, this impact has been even more profound, with a reduction exceeding 50 percent.

Among the vaccines examined, measles vaccination emerged as the most influential in reducing infant mortality, responsible for saving 60 percent of lives through immunization. With its unparalleled efficacy, this vaccine is poised to continue leading the charge in safeguarding lives and bolstering global health efforts for generations to come.

But these are not just numbers. Behind each digit lies a story of a child who can grow up to adulthood, of parents spared from the agony of loss. Among the saved, are 101 million infants who, thanks to vaccines, now have the opportunity to grow, thrive, and explore the world around them.

The impressive outcomes of this study, the most extensive examination of historical vaccine impact to date, arrive just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) in May 2024. These achievements wouldn’t have been possible without EPI, born in 1974 with a noble mission: to shield children from deadly and debilitating diseases like diphtheria, measles, and polio. Back then, less than 5% of infants had access to routine immunization. Today, that number is an impressive 84%. The progress achieved over the last half-century is truly awe-inspiring, a testament to the unwavering dedication of governments, global collaborators, scientists, healthcare professionals, civil society, volunteers, and parents worldwide.

Despite decades of progress increasing access to immunizations in lower-income countries, the stark reality remains: in 2022, over 14 million children globally were left without a single vaccine dose. These “zero-dose” children embody communities with compounded vulnerabilities who are not just missing out on vaccines but also on a much wider range of essential services. By continuing to invest in immunization, we can ensure that every child, every person, has the opportunity to thrive in good health and productivity.

The pandemic years have posed unprecedented challenges, undoing years of progress in the blink of an eye. That’s why campaigns like “Humanly Possible: Immunization for All”, launched during World Immunization Week at the end of April, are needed, for continued vigilance and support.

Humanly Possible: Immunization for All

I want to extend my heartfelt gratitude to the global community and all those who contributed to making this year’s campaign unforgettable. We garnered over 1,300 mentions in the media, including notable outlets such as Le Monde, AFP, EFE, DPA, TASS, VOX, MSN, Belga, Infobae, La Vanguardia, and La Nacion. Landmarks like the Jet-d’eau in Geneva illuminated in magenta, alongside numerous events worldwide – including launching ceremonies, webinars, and photo exhibits – further underscored the achievements of immunization. Not to mention, the campaign received tremendous support on social media, with influential figures like football legend David Beckham, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, amplifying the campaign’s message.

Now, we must sustain the momentum of “Humanly Possible.” Now more than ever, we must safeguard immunization progress in every corner of the globe and intensify even further our efforts to reach the 67 million children who missed out on one or more vaccines during the pandemic years.

A new dawn in the fight against meningitis

Looking ahead, there’s renewed optimism in the battle against meningitis, as global leaders gathered for the inaugural high-level meeting to defeat meningitis by 2030, asserting unanimity in the feasibility of this goal with sufficient resources and coordinated efforts. Co-hosted by WHO and the Government of France under the patronage of President Emmanuel Macron, the event convened stakeholders from diverse sectors, including Member States, experts, donors, the private sector, civil society, and Paralympic athletes preparing for the Paris 2024 Games, all demonstrating unwavering commitment to eradicating this disease.

Meningitis, a swift and severe disease with profound health, economic, and social ramifications, disproportionately affects individuals, particularly in the meningitis belt spanning 26 sub-Saharan African countries.

Building on Nigeria’s successful deployment of a new, safe vaccine (Men5) in March targeting prevalent meningococcal strains in Africa, leaders pledged to implement the comprehensive global roadmap for “Defeating Meningitis by 2030“, emphasizing catalytic investments to drive actionable initiatives.

While the objectives outlined in the roadmap are ambitious and forward-thinking, the foundation of collaboration laid by Member States, technical experts, and leaders representing civil society, academia, and the private sector instills confidence in our collective ability to defeat this insidious disease, thereby fostering a fairer, more resilient world for generations to come.

Strengthening malaria immunization efforts in Nigeria

I was honoured to be in Nigeria recently to support the rethinking of approaches to address the country’s high malaria burden, to make the most impactful use of recommended tools, including strategic use of malaria vaccines in that mix to reduce childhood mortality from malaria. Young children are at high risk of dying from malaria; malaria vaccines have been shown to substantially reduce early childhood deaths in public health use through the WHO-coordinated Malaria Vaccine Implementation Programme, and wider roll out of vaccines in Africa is underway.

The “Ministerial Roundtable on Rethinking Malaria Elimination”, was organized by the Nigeria Ministry of Health through the leadership of the Honourable Coordinating Minister for Health and Social Welfare, Professor Muhammad Ali Pate. The roundtable brought together myriad partners and stakeholders to discuss actions that were announced ahead of the high-level dialogue. Nigeria has the world’s largest burden of malaria, with more than a quarter of the world’s cases, and one-third of global deaths, most of whom are young children and pregnant women. WHO supports countries as they use national data for subnational tailoring of malaria interventions, including malaria vaccines, for highest impact.

Looking forward…

There is new hope in the ongoing battle against dengue, one of the most important mosquito-borne diseases in the world: WHO has added the Dengue Tetravalent Vaccine Qdenga to its list of prequalified vaccines. In recent decades, dengue incidence has skyrocketed, with a ten-fold surge in reported cases from 2000 to 2019. This alarming trend shows no signs of slowing down, driven by factors such as urbanization, dense populations, increased global mobility, and the effects of climate change. The prequalification means larger access to vaccines as a key tool to prevent dengue in young children and adults. This achievement not only enhances global health efforts but also provides a vital boost in combating this debilitating disease.

Finally, as we anticipate the Seventy-seventh World Health Assembly, themed “All for Health, Health for All,” May 27 to June 1, urgent action is imperative to achieve the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030), target of halving the number of zero-dose children by 2030. Intensified efforts are needed to reach millions of children in humanitarian settings, often the most vulnerable and underserved. Innovative approaches and robust partnerships will be crucial in reaching these unreached populations and ensuring equitable access to life-saving vaccines. Financial commitments must align with WHO recommendations to guarantee that all children, up to the age of five, receive the vaccinations they need to thrive.


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