THE WHO AND VACCINE DEVELOPMENT FOR AFRICA [Vaccines success story gives us hope for the future] By our Special Correspondent

THE WHO AND VACCINE DEVELOPMENT FOR AFRICA [Vaccines success story gives us hope for the future] By our Special Correspondent

                                                           Immunization in Nigeria

It is interesting to observe that the World Health Organization (WHO) has continued to work in partnership with public and private sectors to uphold its pride in the history of vaccinology around the world. The World Health Organization has continued to assess vaccines for global supply and its ground-breaking prequalification programme has made it possible to share out quality-assured, safe and effective vaccines to dozens of countries across the world. The programme has given many countries the security and confidence to know that the vaccines they purchase actually meet WHO’s standards for safety, effectiveness and quality.

The Expanded Programme on Immunization (EPI) created by WHO with the help of UNICEF in the 1970s has brought lifesaving vaccines to hundreds of millions of children around the world. The immunization programme is found in every country on the globe.  It has the farthest reach and deepest impact of any public health programme. WHO staff have supported governments and health professionals to deliver vaccines where they are needed on the ground. Its success is measured in millions of lives saved each year.  Through vaccination, smallpox has been eradicated and polio is on the verge of being defeated. The wealth of experience accrued by WHO and its partners over decades is now being deployed to accelerate the development and distribution of vaccines against COVID-19.

On constant alert, every year WHO studies influenza trends to work out which strains are emerging and should be included in the next season’s flu vaccine. And it continually monitors potential signals of pandemic threat. Today, 86% of the world’s children receive essential, lifesaving vaccines, increasing from around 20% back in 1980. This protects them and their communities against a range of infectious diseases, including measles, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B and polio. The number of children paralysed by polio has been reduced by 99.9% worldwide over the last three decades.

This level of protection comes through a strong global effort to increase vaccine access and affordability with support in recent decades from new partnerships like the Measles & Rubella Initiative and Gavi the Vaccine Alliance, focusing on expanding vaccine availability to the poorest countries. Innovative partnerships have also seen WHO help lead major cholera and yellow fever vaccination campaigns, and have also produced effective vaccines against meningitis and pneumonia, diarrhea and the world’s first-ever malaria vaccine currently being piloted in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi.

                                                                      Ebola

We have known about Ebola since the 1970s, but the disease hit the headlines in 2014–2016 when an epidemic in West Africa killed more than 11, 000 people. This epidemic triggered the first human trials of a vaccine against the disease and prompted changes in the way the world responds to outbreaks. To tackle the threat of Ebola, one of the biggest priorities was to fund vaccine discovery, fast-track clinical trials, hasten regulatory approvals and enable manufacturers to produce and roll out an Ebola vaccine. From early testing to trials of the Ebola vaccine in Guinea in 2016 took a total of ten months, a speed unprecedented at the time.

                                                          Meningitis vaccine for Africa

Africa has also benefited from another innovative vaccine development. For more than 100 years, countries in sub-Saharan Africa were ravaged by widespread meningitis epidemics. During a severe epidemic 1996 -1997 more than 250, 000 cases and 2 , 000 deaths were reported across what is known as the “meningitis belt”, stretching from Senegal in the West to Ethiopia in the East.

With more than 450 million people at risk from meningococcal, African ministers of health, public health experts and scientists were challenged to seek a new approach to deal with the disease. It is encouraging that WHO, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and PATH recommended the development of a conjugate meningococcal vaccine for Africa that could meaningfully reduce the disease burden and eventually overcome the epidemics that came in waves.

Clinical trials which began since 2005 have been carried out in the Gambia, Ghana, India, Mali and Senegal. In June 2010, the vaccine received WHO prequalification. The first countries to introduce the vaccine – Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger scaled up activities relating to licensure, vaccine management, campaign planning and monitoring and management of adverse events following immunization. The innovative and affordable vaccine was introduced in late 2010 and more than 300 million people living in the meningitis belt countries have since been vaccinated resulting in a dramatic decline, all but ridding these countries of this major cause of deadly epidemics.

                                                                    Looking forward

The Ebola and meningitis vaccines are two of the most exciting developments in global public health in recent history. So too is the evolution of the routine immunization programmes that have so successfully halted the measles and polio outbreaks that once ravaged communities, killing and maiming young children. Pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines have been successful against some of the most common causes of pneumonia and diarrheal deaths. Innovative financing expedited the introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine, enabling it to be launched in 2011, in a world-first, in rich and poor countries simultaneously.

Immunization saves millions of lives every year. We now have vaccines to prevent and control 25 infections, helping people of all ages live longer, healthier lives. The wealth of experience accrued by WHO and its partners over decades is now being deployed to accelerate the development and distribution of vaccines against COVID-19, so that when we have a safe and effective vaccine, no one will be left behind. Vaccines remain the safest, most cost-effective protection against disease and will provide a powerful tool to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

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