Jeremy Lefroy is MP for Stafford.
April 24th marked the beginning of this year’s World Immunisation Week, an internationally recognised point in the calendar to celebrate the contribution which vaccines have made to global health and development efforts. While considerable progress has been made in improving access to safe, effective vaccines, more needs to be done to ensure that children in some of the world’s poorest countries do not die from diseases which are preventable by vaccines.
Recently Bill Gates, who works tirelessly for improvements in global health, was asked to show one slide which captured advances in global health. He displayed a chart which showed that in 1960 around 20 million children died before their fifth birthday. Today that figure has fallen to around 7 million. Vaccines have played a crucial role in this reduction. However, despite this progress, vaccine preventable diseases still kill circa 1.5 million children under five every year, the great majority in the world’s poorest countries. An estimated 22.6 million children worldwide remain unimmunised against vaccine preventable diseases.
The establishment and continued work of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) has been central to the improvement in vaccine coverage. A critical reason for poor immunisation rates was market failure: vaccines were available for developed countries but not appropriate for, and crucially unaffordable for, the world’s poorest countries. GAVI’s innovative ‘market-shaping’ approach has made vaccines available in more than 70 of the world’s poorest countries at a price which is appropriate to developing country contexts – both affordable and sustainable.
By becoming the world’s largest bulk purchaser of vaccines, GAVI has been able to work with representatives from the pharmaceutical industry to lower production costs and make life saving vaccines more affordable, whilst remaining commercially viable for industry partners.
GAVI, along with UNICEF, the WHO and others, cooperate closely across the world in purchasing and supporting the distribution and implementation of vaccines in developing countries. The UK Government has always played a central role in both GAVI and its financing. The previous Government launched the international funding mechanism which has made the work the possible and the UK’s commitment of $2.98 billion over 23 years is the largest of any nation. The private sector has also been crucial to GAVI’s success. Without pharmaceutical companies and their commitment to research and development and to offering lower prices for developing countries, we would not have available the vaccines needed to fight some of the developing world’s largest killers – pneumonia, rotavirus diarrhoea, polio and measles/rubella.
As Chairman of the APPG for Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases and a Trustee of Sabin Foundation Europe, which is the UK partner of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, I am encouraged by the progress being made in developing a safe, effective and cost efficient vaccine against malaria. While expanding access to insecticide-treated bednets and indoor spraying can greatly help to reduce the malaria threat, the availability of an anti-malarial vaccine would provide a great boost to tackling a disease which is considered endemic in 104 countries and territories around the world and is responsible for 627,000 deaths every year.
The announcement by the GAVI Board in 2013, that there is a reasonable case to support the rollout of malaria vaccines which are currently being developed, is a welcome step. Next the vaccine needs to be licensed and recommended for use by the joint meeting of the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts and the Malaria Programme Advisory Committee in order to prove cost effectiveness.
It is a complex process which involves many organisations from the public, voluntary and private sectors. But, if it results in a safe, effective and affordable malaria vaccine, it will show once more how – by working together – we can solve some of the world’s greatest global health and development challenges.
The story of the progress in immunisation over the past decade is one of international innovation and partnerships and it is well worth celebrating.