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UNICEF's remarks at the WHO (EMRO) Press Conference on World Immunization Week 2021 and COVID-19

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As Delivered by Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa

27 April 2021 AMMAN/CAIRO

My friend Dr. Ahmad Al-Manthari,

Distinguished colleagues from the press corps,

Good day to you all and Ramadan Kareem.

I join Dr. Ahmed in thanking you for being with us today at this press conference to mark World Immunization Week. These events are testimony to our partnership and the work we continue to do together in the area of health including to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Throughout our recent history, the history of 20th century, it has been proven that vaccines work, vaccines are safe and vaccines save lives. They protect children against preventable diseases including measles, polio and diphtheria. And vaccines also protect adults as you've seen with COVID-19.

Coming back to children, every year thanks to vaccines up to 3 million children survive every year around the world including in this region.

The region historically has been known for its near universal vaccination coverage despite many humanitarian crises, conflicts and poverty. It is home to 55 million children under the age of five. And those children historically have been vaccinated.

In the last year and despite COVID-19 and the interruptions of immunization campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa, we have nonetheless seen that immunization in this region is still largely back on track. And we continue to make the case for it to stay on track.

At the beginning of the pandemic, some vaccination campaigns in the region did come to a halt including those against polio and measles. For a few months, we had nearly 15 million children were at risk of missing out on vaccines in Djibouti, Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen. But towards the end of 2020, campaigns resumed and picked up and made up for what was lost. To date, we've reached 36 million children were reached in a number of countries with some of these catch up campaigns against polio, measles and yellow fever.

This has happened at a time were health systems are overstretched and as frontline workers have continued to work, day and night, on the COVID-19 outbreak response. Amidst very difficult circumstances, it's quite remarkable to see how immunization has been supported and has continued.

This truly highlights the importance of public health systems across the region and the need to continue supporting and strengthening these systems. Specifically, to focus on immunization.

At a global level, I would also like to note that UNICEF and WHO launched yesterday the Immunization Agenda 2030, which is a comprehensive plan to maximize the impact of vaccination over the next decade. This agenda is a global strategy to maximize the impact of vaccines. It aims at saving 50 million lives by 2030, halve the number of children receiving zero dose of vaccines and achieve 90 per cent coverage for key vaccines over the next decade, throughout the world including in Middle East and North Africa.

So that's on vaccines generally for World Immunization Week, and the importance of vaccines as a life-saving intervention work which are the most cost-effective health interventions in the world.

Allow me to turn now to the logistics and procurement part of immunization and speak also a bit specifically about some of the deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines.

UNICEF is the UN agency around the world that is responsible for procurement and delivery of vaccines for children. That is also true for our region.

In 2020, we were was able to deliver 136 million doses of vaccines in the Middle East and North Africa despite heavy restrictions including curfews, lockdowns and in many cases closure of airspace and non-availability of flights. These shipments included vaccines against polio, measles, tetanus, hepatitis, Diphtheria and TB among others.

This year -- in 2021- we're also on track as scheduled. We've been able to deliver 25 million doses of vaccines to this region and again to repeat that same level of coverage and availability of vaccines. Of those, 5 million doses were procured from the COVAX facility against the COVID-19 virus. And every country in the region, and for us it's Middle East and North Africa, has now received vaccines. This is an operation that delivers vaccines in the region with a focus on low- and middle-income countries. And as we discussed las time we met, COVAX is an unprecedented initiative in its size and volume, one of the largest undertakings the global community has taken and the UN has been involved with since it was established over 75 years ago.

The latest country to receive vaccines out of the COVAX facility was Syria with 256,000 doses delivered. Dr. Ahmed and I did the press release on and it was delivered both in Damascus, but also in Idlib to serve the northwest which is accessed cross border from out of Turkey. I highlight this specific delivery, because it's such an important context, Syria is a complex emergency, 10 years of conflict, health system that struggle, and despite that there's a fully-fledged immunization campaign addressing COVID-19 in Syria.

The third thing I want to use my opening remarks to address is the issue of vaccine hesitancy and Dr. Ahmed spoke to, which we really urge the media to help us address and help combat. Of particular concern is the hesitancy, and this is something that WHO and UNICEF working jointly have focused on and got the latest data on, it's hesitancy among health workers and young people, the very people that we want to be champions for this vaccine. The hesitancy is mainly around the safety and efficacy of the vaccines and this is often due to the false news and inaccurate information. And that is exactly what we need to address. It's also sometimes due to the fact that health workers don't have the necessary equipment when they vaccinate. And again we are working to make sure that that is in place. The COVID-19 vaccine is absolutely critical in getting us out of the outbreak. If we don't vaccinate en masse, in addition to continuing with primary healthcare safety measures. We're not going to be able to defeat this virus. It will mutate, it will become more dangerous and none of us will be safe. So, we must continue to convince everyone to become vaccinated and to continue the effort that we're in. because the new variants become more transmissible, they become more difficult to address, and we need to be acting now and raising immunization levels to reach everyone.

In closing a few words on the way forward:

  • We are committed, WHO and UNICEF, to protect child immunization across the region for future generations of children, for both routine and special campaigns through increased support to the health care systems and frontline workers.
  • Vaccines when it comes to COVID are not enough. We know it can get tiring, but we have to keep strictly following public health safety measures. The basic steps that Dr. Ahmed has spoke about, that are proven to save lives and protect us from COVID-19 and other diseases. Get vaccinated but also wash your hands, wearing masks, keeping our social distance and avoiding gatherings. Until everyone is vaccinated and I know that WHO will come up with updated information and guidance.
  • And finally, we will continue to work together to raise awareness about the importance, safety and efficacy of vaccines whether for children or for adults against covid-19. We have a huge responsibility on us to stop all myths and false information around vaccines and systematically introduce and provide evidence-and science-based information to people around this region around the safety and efficacy of vaccines. This is a job you can help us with in the media.

The cheapest health intervention is to wash your hands and vaccines are the second cheapest intervention. And as I said it helps save 3 million children every year and it will be part of saving us from this virus.

In conclusion, let me here pay tribute for those who lost their lives around the world and in this region. It is in their memory; that we hold these press conferences we are committed to fight this pandemic and to win. And vaccines are an essential part of that, immunization is an essential part of that and the COVID-19 immunization is an essential part of that.

Thank you

ENDs

Media contacts

Juliette Touma

Regional Chief of Communications

UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Regional Office

Tel: 00962798674628