By Haruna Gimba
Immunization experts from African countries and beyond have this week 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 World Health Organization (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 per cent in recent years.
A statement from RITAG group says vVaccine-Preventable Diseases (VPDs) still kill more than half a million children under five years of age in Africa every year, representing approximately 56 per cent 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,” the statement read.
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.
WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, said they 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,” he 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 & 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 per cent between 2017 and 2019.
RITAG Chair, Professor Helen Rees, said 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,” he said.