Friday, May 3, 2013

The power of vaccines

The first "vaccine" a child receives, breast milk, is free and massively reduces the chances of illness. (c)UNICEF Viet Nam\2007\Doan Bao
This week more than 180 countries are celebrating World Immunization Week.  Vaccines are a life-saving and cost effective public health intervention we often take for granted. They provide immunity against various illnesses causing death and disability that a whole new generation is lucky enough not to remember. Vaccines helped eradicate smallpox in 1977 and are on their way to eradicating polio and eliminating neonatal tetanus and measles. Newer vaccines protect against some types of pneumonia and diarrhoea (the two biggest disease-specific killers of children) and various cancers.

A fully immunized child is more likely to attend school, have greater cognitive abilities, and be a more productive member of society and less likely to be disabled.

In economic terms, investment in immunization offers an impressive rate of return between 15% and 20%. Scaling up the use of vaccines in 72 of the world’s poorest countries could save over 6 million lives and avert more than $150 billion in treatment costs and lost productivity between 2011 and 2020.

Vaccine programmes reach many children by routine services or campaigns. Globally, 83% of children are being reached with essential vaccines. These delivery mechanisms provide opportunities to deliver other mother and child interventions. Vaccines and their delivery system have helped Viet Nam to be on track to meet various health-related Millennium Development Goals.

Over the last 26 years, Viet Nam’s Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) has scaled up access to vaccines, saving 42,000 lives and averting more than 6.7 million cases of polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and pertussis. Over 1.7 million Vietnamese infants (96%) receive routine immunization against 10 important childhood diseases. In the last two years in Viet Nam, the percentage of new-born children receiving protection against Hepatitis B has increased from 21% to 76%. All these achievements are due to the tireless efforts of front line health workers, often working in difficult circumstances, and sustained Government and development partner commitment.

However, these obvious successes should not be taken for granted and approximately 20% of deaths of children under five in Viet Nam are vaccine preventable. The first "vaccine" a child receives, breast milk, is free and massively reduces the chances of illness. Unfortunately access to this simple natural intervention and available manufactured vaccines is still not possible for one fifth of children globally.

UNICEF, WHO and other GAVI Alliance partners have been instrumental in supporting countries to introduce potent new vaccines that otherwise could not afford them.  For example, Viet Nam has recently taken the bold step to introduce the rubella vaccine later this year, by a campaign reaching 23 million children between 9 months – 14 years old and by routine services to later avert 83,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome. Viet Nam is using evidence to consider introducing others in the next few years. Viet Nam’s domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity is scaling up and, if this meets minimum global standards, may strengthen the country’s economy further.

During World Immunization Week, Viet Nam will take action to highlight the importance and benefits of immunization and increase the trust of population to immunization though mass media and communication at national and sub-national levels.

Strong collaboration and partnership between Government and development partners is essential to ensure resources are used effectively and efficiently. Domestic and foreign funding commitment and strong technical oversight  are crucial. These will optimize quality, safety standards and help ensure every child receives the vaccines they are entitled to. 
We believe that every child in Viet Nam has the right to be fully vaccinated. This is not only on ethical grounds - to reduce the chances of their individual, family or communities tragedy - but  because vaccines have the power not only to save but also to transform lives. Reaching every last child improves their life prospects, that of future generations and contributes to the overall growth and economic development of Viet Nam.

By Dr. Takeshi Kasai and Ms. Lotta Sylwander

The authors:
Dr. Takeshi Kasai is Representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Viet Nam, and Ms. Lotta Sylwander is the Respresntative of UNICEF in Viet Nam. This article has been published on the Viet Week on 26th April 2013


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