Vaccinating Zero-Dose Children
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance has partnered with Save the Children to expand the reach of vaccination efforts and health services for vaccinating zero-dose children. Millions of children around the world go without routine vaccinations every year, creating dangerous situations in developing nations plagued with diseases such as pneumonia and measles. The partnership intends to address this problem through a coordinated response of immunization programs to reach children in the most disadvantaged places on Earth.
The State of Global Child Vaccinations
There has been an undeniable trend of progress in global child vaccination rates over the past several decades. The rate of children fully vaccinated against diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus stands at 85% today compared with 20% in 1980. Likewise, the rate of vaccinations protecting against measles and polio rose from less than 20% in 1980 to 85% in 2019, while rates of vaccinations for rubella rose from less than 10% to more than 70% in the same period of time. However, despite the obvious progress in child vaccinations, there is still a sizable portion of children who are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated, leaving them susceptible to life-threatening diseases.
Approximately 20 million children are either under-vaccinated or completely unvaccinated across the globe, with more than 60% of this number coming from just 10 countries including Nigeria, Ethiopia and Pakistan. About half of the 20 million receive no routine vaccinations whatsoever, making them zero-dose children. These children overwhelmingly live in developing nations, many of which are high-intensity conflict zones. More peaceful areas in developing nations still lack adequate infrastructure and millions of children living in remote and marginalized communities have little or no access to healthcare.
The Risks for Zero-Dose Children
Zero-dose children are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet as they are easy targets for life-threatening diseases such as pneumonia, measles and HPV. Pneumonia kills more than 800,000 children every year, making it the leading infectious cause of preventable child deaths in the world. It is a treatable disease, and if diagnosed early, pneumonia treatment over a three-to-five day period can be successful using antibiotics costing just $0.40. However, in low-income countries lacking access to clean water, healthy diets and affordable healthcare, it is a life-threatening disease as almost all child pneumonia deaths occur in developing nations.
Other major diseases of concern to zero-dose children include measles and HPV. Global measles cases are on the rise again, reaching levels not seen in more than two decades. In 2019, the world reported about 863,000 cases of measles compared with only 360,000 the year before. This alarming escalation turned even worse with the arrival of COVID-19 as many countries had to suspend immunization services and programs leaving even more children unable to get vaccinated. Furthermore, while the rate of global HPV vaccinations has steadily increased for several years, fully-vaccinated girls only make up about 15% of the world with many developing nations lacking any vaccination programs. These low coverage levels around the world mean the likelihood a child born today will have all necessary vaccinations by age 5 is less than 20%.
Thankfully, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and Save the Children plan to make a global impact with a vaccination program intended to reach zero-dose children. Save the Children already works in developing nations by training and supporting frontline healthcare workers, delivering life-saving medicine and improving immunization coverage. Gavi will leverage this existing presence to expand immunization programs for vaccinating zero-dose children. The partnership between the two organizations will work by sharing key learnings and best practices to explore adding vaccinations to current treatments of pneumonia, malaria and malnutrition for children in low-income communities.
This program will build on the healthcare successes of Save the Children in developing nations and expand the reach of vaccinations to Gavi-supported countries such as Angola, the Republic of the Congo and Cameroon. Immunization efforts will prioritize fragile and high-conflict areas but other locations with major immunization gaps will also receive aid and vaccination increases. Additionally, the partnership will address vaccine hesitancy among parents by implementing community-based education programs and will continue the advancement of COVID-19 vaccination access in developing nations. These efforts stand to make an immense difference in developing nations and millions of children and their families stand to benefit, as do entire communities, as higher levels of immunizations lead to less infectious diseases.
The Road Ahead
Although health innovations in the past half-century have contributed to a major decrease in preventable child mortality rates, there are still far too many children who die from infectious diseases and many of these children are completely unvaccinated. In response to this situation, Gavi and Save the Children have teamed up with efforts in vaccinating zero-dose children in the world’s most impoverished nations. By building on the successes of current operations and introducing vaccinations into existing health programs, the partnership will strive to decrease the immunization gap and continue making headway toward the global goal of no zero-dose children.
– Calvin Nordhougen