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Are we playing Russian roulette with African kids’ lives?


Russian roulette is a simple, sadistic game with straightforward rules. A player takes a revolver loaded with a single round, spins the cylinder, presses the gun against his or her head and pulls the trigger. The player has a one in six chance of having his or her brain blown to pieces. As gruesome as this sounds, the odds of survival could be worse.

It could be one in five.

As in, if you are an African child, you have a one in five chance of not receiving basic lifesaving vaccines. Granted, the nature of the odds are much different than Russian Roulette, but the stakes are the same. 

We are playing Russian roulette with African kids' lives, WHO, body 1.jpgImage: Flickr - WHO

But African leaders have an opportunity to improve this dismal statistic. From February 24-25, the World Health Organization and African Union will be hosting a conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. This is not your run-of-the-mill event. The Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa (MCIA) is the first ever event that brings together African ministers of health, finance, and other sectors for the sole purpose of improving access to vaccines for African children.

Africa’s first conference on immunization could not come at a more fitting yet challenging moment. Five out of the 10 countries around the world with the highest number of unvaccinated children are African.

This is unacceptable. Vaccinating kids is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. Every $1 invested in vaccines leads to $16 in economic benefits, proving that vaccines make both children and economies healthy.  Vaccines keep children in school and are the main reasons why child deaths in Africa plummeted by 55% from 1990 to 2012.

And, lest we forget, because of efforts to reach every child with vaccines, Africa has not seen a polio case in over a year!

While Africa deserves praise for its incredible progress against polio, near elimination of meningitis A, and 86% decrease in measles-related deaths since 2000, now is not the time to complacently sit back.

Over the last three years, overall access to vaccines has stagnated. And as incredible as the gains have been, they can be reversed. All countries must now remain vigilant until Africa is certified polio-free.

Furthermore, The Global Vaccine Action Plan 2011-2020 (GVAP), a global framework to prevent millions of vaccine preventable deaths by 2020, is off-track. Over a million children are still dying each year from vaccine preventable causes and out of the six targets laid out in the plan, Africa is only on track to reach one.

In Ethiopia, the conference host country, a child from a wealthy household is two and a half times more likely to be immunized than a child from a poor household. And in Nigeria, which surpassed South Africa as the largest economy in Africa in 2014, the gap is even wider. Nigerian rich kids are 11 times more likely to receive vaccines than poor ones.  While national immunization coverage is increasing in these and other countries, so are these equity gaps. For true progress to be achieved, there must be equal access to vaccines for all African children, regardless of their parents’ income levels.

MCIA is a powerful platform for African leaders to effect real change for their people. Leaders must show political will and commit to expanding vaccine coverage by securing sustainable financing, collecting better data, strengthening supply chains, and empowering local communities.

It is also an opportunity to ensure that the lessons learned from ending polio can continue to help children for generations to come. Leaders can help close the immunization gap and deliver broad benefits for children’s health by ensuring the infrastructure built and knowledge gained to stop polio on the continent is integrated into ongoing national health programs.

We as global citizens can also do our part in pressuring leaders to prioritize vaccine access and other essential health services to the poorest and most marginalized. Learn more and take action by signing the Civil Society Declaration.