Improving childhood immunisation coverage is crucial for Africa

African leaders must not allow children to miss out on life-saving vaccinations.

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A child is given a dose of polio vaccine at an immunisation health centre, in Maiduguri, Borno State, Nigeria, August 29, 2016 [File: Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters]

As we mark World Immunisation Week, UNICEF released last week The State of the World’s Children 2023: For Every Child, Vaccination report, sending a red alert on the steep decline in routine childhood immunisation coverage after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccines have proven to be one the most successful public health interventions to control the deadliest infections, yet in Eastern and Southern Africa, we have experienced a 6 percent decline in child immunisation coverage compared with pre-COVID times, with more than 4.6 million children missing out on life-saving vaccines in the last three years, especially the marginalised and poorest.

The COVID-19 pandemic exposed – and exacerbated – a lack of resilience and persistent weaknesses in primary healthcare services in Africa. Even before the pandemic struck, far too many countries suffered from a lack of skilled health workers, limited access to essential supplies and equipment, weak capacity for collecting and using data and conducting disease surveillance, shortages at local levels of key medicines and vaccines, and barriers to using available resources efficiently and effectively. Amid that already dire situation, catch-up and recovery efforts are now urgently needed to vaccinate missed children and stop the decline.

Immunisation is not just a health issue, it is also a political, socioeconomic and gender issue that requires both political and economic solutions. UNICEF calls on African leaders across the region to act now and take strong political action to reduce the gap in vaccination and make sure that all children are immunised and protected. The right policy decisions and increased budget allocations for primary healthcare for children, including immunisation, in underserved communities in Africa can boost our efforts towards a healthier, safer, and more prosperous continent.

The consequences of failing to vaccinate children may become more severe in years to come. The recent resurgence of measles, cholera, and poliovirus in Africa is a warning that we need to step up our efforts. Change will be too slow if we do not garner the political will to protect children against vaccine-preventable diseases. More deliberate efforts to invest in sustainable and resilient routine immunisation programmes will save the lives of millions of children.

Beyond the moral imperative to do what is best for every child, investing in immunisation is also grounded in the realisation that it makes economic sense. Despite shrinking national budgets in some countries, immunisation must remain a priority because it is a proven strategy for reducing future healthcare costs and supporting economic growth.

While Africa can and should do more to improve vaccination, the global community also has a responsibility to make a concerted effort to align its support to national priorities and promote homegrown solutions that are culturally sensitive and respond to the needs of communities. The days of one size fits all solutions are over – it is time to invest in health interventions that respond to the socioeconomic needs of children and their caregivers. Donors can support by shifting from disease-specific initiatives to systems strengthening. We should find innovative ways of educating caregivers, especially, fathers, and promote their involvement in routine immunisation.

Vaccinating all children on the continent will require a strong commitment from governments. Political leaders must be ready for the sometimes difficult financing conversations and challenging trade-offs on how best to fund primary healthcare and immunisation and how to make them more resilient to future shocks. For almost 80 years, UNICEF has worked in Africa with governments and many other partners to protect children against vaccine-preventable diseases. Our journey to save lives must continue hand in hand with our government counterparts.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.