A woman and her child in La Paz, Bolivia during the 2011 Vaccination Week in the Americas. Photo courtesy of PAHO
This week is World Immunization Week, a global effort to highlight the importance of immunization as a life-saving intervention that guards against preventable diseases such as diphtheria, polio, pertussis and tetanus. This effort was initiated by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) in 2003 when it first celebrated Vaccination Week in the Americas and reached 16 million people in 19 countries.
PAHO has had many successes around immunization campaigns. In 1994, countries of the Americas set a goal of eradicating measles by the year 2000. In 2002, a measles outbreak in Venezuela infected nearly 2,500 people, prompting Health Ministers in the region to coordinate a vaccination program. By the next year, measles cases in all of North, South and Central America were reduced to 105, the lowest number ever reported.
PAHO’s success inspired similar programs around the world. Though the World Health Organization identifies a global goal – this year, it is reaching the 22.4 million infants who are not fully immunized at 12 months – each WHO region modifies the theme to meet local needs. In Africa, it is Save lives, Prevent disabilities, Vaccinate! and 40 countries in the region are partners. The African goals include reaching marginalized, underserved populations and increasing vaccination coverage. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the objective is to eliminate measles. In South-East Asia, issues include mobile populations, access and workforce shortages for scaling-up routine immunization.
WHO’s primary focus this year is on securing better supply and logistics systems for vaccines. The 180 countries involved in this effort will try to strengthen access to vaccines. All WHO members will encourage the discovery and development of new vaccines, produced with the recognition of needs of low-resource settings, such as temporary storage without refrigeration. They will look to support supply chain innovations like “moving warehouses” that make supplying remote clinical facilities easier. By using mobile communications technologies, governments and aid groups can explore adapting supply chains to conditions on the ground at short notice. By improving communications about immunization delivery and effectiveness, governments can determine how to tailor messages about saving lives by immunization to communities’ cultural needs.
We have vaccines today that protect against pneumonia, rotavirus diarrhea and rubella, among others. Not immunizing children is dangerous, and the need to communicate the benefits of protecting children against preventable diseases is urgent. We can solve both problems so long as we get the word out.