Dozens of influential community members and leaders from West and Central Africa, including a Nobel Prize laureate, UNICEF national ambassadors, musicians, actors, young activists, bloggers and business leaders lend their voices to raise awareness about the crucial importance of vaccination, the best tool available – alongside prevention measures – to put an end to preventable child diseases.
On World and Africa Immunisation Week (24-30 April), these influencers from several West and Central African countries, including Benin, Guinea, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and The Gambia, promote the use of vaccines to protect people of all ages against disease. They join several UNICEF Goodwill and national ambassadors who recently reminded that vaccines work and save lives, urging populations to rebuff rumors and misinformation.
“A global affliction must bow to science and human knowledge. Family, community – embrace the curative needle; delay is dangerous. Don’t vacillate, don’t hesitate – Vaccinate!”, said Prof. Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize Laureate from Nigeria.
Vaccines are amongst the greatest advances of modern medicine. They avert lifelong disabilities and save millions of lives in the world every year. Although fewer children are dying now than 30 years ago, in West and Central Africa, close to half a million deaths each year – or 28 per cent of deaths among children under five – are from pneumonia, diarrhea, and measles.
A majority could have been prevented through vaccination.
West and Central Africa is the region of the world with the lowest childhood vaccination coverage. In 2019, an estimated 6.3 million of the 18.6 million children born every year did not receive the three doses of diphtheria, tetanus toxoids and pertussis-containing vaccine in their first year of life.
Service disruptions and the economic chaos brought by the COVID-19 pandemic have made this worse and opened the door for a devastating rise in preventable child deaths. Due to the pandemic, border closures, lockdowns, and restrictions to movements have led to the suspension of routine immunisation.
This left many children at risk of being infected with measles, yellow fever, polio, and other vaccine-preventable diseases. In West and Central Africa, it was reported that up to 500,000 children missed their measles vaccines in May 2020 as compared to May 2019.
Overburdened and already weakened national health systems are struggling to deliver maternal, newborn and child essential services, like immunization. Even when services are available, transport issues or simple fear of contact with COVID-19 patients in health facilities mean that people are unable or unwilling to access them.
“Vaccines save lives, they protect us as well as our families. Vaccines require investment and confidence. To allow thousands of children to stay safe, to allow communities to protect themselves and their loved ones, vaccinate!”, said ChancelineMevowanou, a feminist activist from Benin.
UNICEF is part of the COVAX facility, working with partners to ensure equitable access of lower to middle income countries to 2 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2021 and supporting countries with cold chain equipment. As the vaccination roll-out has started in West and Central Africa, UNICEF’s goal is not just to return to normal because, for millions of children, normal was never good enough, but to accelerate efforts by investing in health and essential services that reach all children.
“With all eyes focused on COVID-19 vaccines, other crucial vaccination commitments must not be forgotten. Now, more than ever, we need strong political will and greater financial commitments to achieve universal access to immunization in Africa, and everyone has a role to play”, said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“We have a historic opportunity to both set out a pathway for the eradication of preventable diseases and end this pandemic. This requires a collective effort to reach every child and community with vaccines and health services in West and Central Africa, to continue taking key preventative measures, and have confidence in the life-saving power of vaccines”.
“We must work together to build confidence in vaccines and in routine immunization that saves children’s lives. If we are to end preventable disease, we must not falter in our commitment to supporting Governments to reach all children with vaccines”, said Ms Poirier.
Messages from the influencers participating in the initiative will be shared via UNICEF channels during World and Africa Immunisation Week and beyond.