Immunization experts in Africa have convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the Biannual Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group(RITAG) meeting with a call on African leaders to increase investments in immunization to safeguard lives of children.
A statement issued by the RITAG and copied to the Ghana News Agency said while Africa had made significant gains towards increasing access to immunisation in the past few decades, its coverage, measured in percentage of children receiving the third dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, has stagnated at 74 percent in recent years.
The RITAG serves as the principal advisory group to the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Africa, offering strategic guidance on regional immunisation policies and programmes.
The statement said vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) still killed more than half a million children under-five years in Africa annually, representing approximately 56 percent of global deaths.
It said at the current pace, the Region was off track to achieving the Global Vaccine Action Plan and the Africa Regional Strategic Plan for Immunisation target of 90 percent coverage by 2020, however, important progress had been made in some key areas.
The statement said by the end of 2016, all countries in the Region had introduced Hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza type B vaccines.
In addition, 39 countries had introduced the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and 32 had introduced the rotavirus vaccine to protect against the two biggest childhood killers; pneumonia and diarrhoea, respectively.
It said for the first time, this year, WHO published immunisation data at the sub-national level, to help tailor interventions at the district level and address gaps that are often masked by national vaccine coverage data.
The statement said the political will is also at an all-time high as shown by the Heads of State endorsement of the Addis Declaration on Immunisation at the 28th African Union Summit.
It quoted Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director, as saying; “We know vaccines work. When children are given a healthy start, families and communities thrive and economies grow stronger.
“We have made great strides in recent years, but there is much work to be done to ensure that all children, no matter where they live, have access to the life-saving vaccines they need. Even one child still losing its life to a preventable disease is one child too many.”
The statement said over the course of the meeting, RITAG members explored a range of pressing issues including access to affordable vaccines for middle-income countries; maternal and neonatal tetanus elimination in Africa; and management of cholera in emergency settings.
The RITAG also discussed the broader effects of upcoming financing transitions.
The statement said most notably, as Africa neared polio eradication, funding to countries through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative for immunisation activities was expected to reduce by 50 percent between 2017 and 2019.
It said funding from the GPEI supports surveillance activities, laboratory networks, human resource and routine immunisation programmes adding that increased funding would be needed from governments to ensure polio was phased out.
Professor Helen Rees, the RITAG Chair, was quoted as saying: “The RITAG meeting was an important opportunity to assess what we need to do to reach every child in Africa with life-saving vaccines.”
“We have identified some of the greatest challenges and opportunities. I am confident that together we can and will stem the tide of vaccine-preventable diseases across the continent.”