7 December 2017, Johannesburg, South Africa – This week, immunization experts from across the World Health Organization (WHO) African Region and beyond convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, for the biannual Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group (RITAG) meeting. The RITAG serves as the principal advisory group to the WHO Regional Office for Africa, offering strategic guidance on regional immunization policies and programs.
While Africa has made significant gains toward increasing access to immunization in the past few decades, immunization coverage – measured by percentage of children receiving the third dose of the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (DTP3) containing vaccine – has stagnated at 74%. Vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) still kill more than half a million children under five years of age in Africa every year – representing approximately 56% of global deaths caused by VPDs. At the current pace, the region is off track to achieve the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) and the Africa Regional Strategic Plan for Immunization (RSPI) target of 90% national immunization coverage by 2020. However, important progress has been made in some key areas.
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 (PCV) and 32 had introduced the rotavirus vaccine to protect against the two biggest childhood killers – pneumonia and diarrhea, respectively. For the first time, this year, WHO published immunization data at the subnational level, to help tailor interventions at the district level and address gaps that are often masked by national vaccine coverage data. Political will is also at an all-time high as shown by the Heads of State endorsement of the Addis Declaration on Immunization at the 28th African Union Summit.
“We know vaccines work. When children are given a healthy start, families and communities thrive and economies grow stronger,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa. “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.”
Over the course of the meeting, RITAG members explored a range of pressing issues, including access to affordable vaccines for middle-income countries; maternal & neonatal tetanus elimination in Africa; and management of cholera in emergency settings. The RITAG also discussed the broader effects of upcoming financing transitions.
Most notably, as Africa nears polio eradication, funding to countries through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) for immunization activities is expected to reduce by 50% between 2017 and 2019. Funding from the GPEI supports surveillance activities, laboratory networks, human resource and routine immunization programmes. Increased funding will be needed from national governments to ensure that the phase-out of polio funding does not reverse immunization progress. Currently, 28 African countries fund less than 50% of their national immunization programs.
“The RITAG meeting was an important opportunity to assess what we need to do to reach every child in Africa with life-saving vaccines,” said RITAG Chair, Professor Helen Rees. “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.”
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