By Kate O’Brien
GENEVA, Switzerland – Since the last GIN in May, we concluded a highly active 76th World Health Assembly (WHA76), focused on accelerating progress towards 2030 global health goals and future pandemic preparedness.
The assembly was a key moment in the drumbeat towards the 79th UN General Assembly (UNGA 79) in September 2024. UNGA will have a health focus this year, with High-Level meetings on anti-microbial resistance, tuberculosis (TB), and Universal Health Coverage (UHC), each of which have substantive roles for vaccines and immunization
My appreciation goes to partners, government representatives, civil society and health workers who contributed to making WHA76 a success especially for the vaccine and immunization discussions. The participation of individuals, organizations and agencies at all levels – local, national, regional and global – to catch up on vaccination coverage and strengthen immunization programmes is rapidly growing in scale, scope and commitment.
Particular thanks to everyone who contributed to the two impactful side events on immunization which took place during the WHA.
The first was a ministerial/partner event on regaining lost ground on child immunization, co-hosted by the Permanent Missions of Brazil and India, on behalf of the Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030) partnership. Distinguished speakers from the African Union, Argentina, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Mozambique, Philippines, UNICEF, Unitaid, United Nations Foundation and the World Bank, shared innovative ideas to address challenges and discussed investments to achieve immunization targets, and by extension, UHC. United under the banner of the “Big Catch-up”, speakers and attendees called for urgent political action to drive forward efforts to catch-up, restore and strengthen routine immunisation, catalyzing public support to vaccinate millions of children in need.
The second event was a Strategic Roundtable hosted by the WHO Director General, Dr Tedros, on “A safer and healthier tomorrow by restoring essential immunization today”. This roundtable, one in a series of six led by the DG, focused on the role of communities in the Big Catch-up efforts to get vaccines back on track. It brought together partners, government representatives, civil society and health workers. This was a very dynamic event with a stellar panel and moderator, Renee Ngamau who brought alive the lived experiences shared by panel members. If we want to reach every single child, whether in impoverished rural communities or overcrowded and underserved urban neighborhoods, it is imperative that the presence, skills, motivation and inclusion of community health workers in planning and implementation is strengthened.
As Dr George Mwinnyaa, whose background is as a community health worker, pointed out during the event: “Community health workers know where the zero-dose children are; they do not need maps for their own communities to tell us where they are.”
As part of the main agenda items, members of the assembly discussed the Global Roadmap on Defeating Meningitis by 2030, and adopted the secretariat’s recommendations on member states implementation, monitoring, capacity building and research and innovation. Meningitis remains a major global public health challenge. Approximately 2.5 million people are diagnosed with it every year and it caused an estimated 250 000 deaths in 2019. The next progress report will be submitted to the 78th WHA in 2025.
Ongoing efforts to end tuberculosis (TB) were also in the spotlight at WHA76. While treatable and curable, it remains among the world’s top infectious killers, claiming 1.6 million lives annually. Recent vaccine developments are offering great hope for having new tools in our arsenal to fight this ancient disease. The upcoming, second, UN High-Level Meeting (HLM) on TB at UNGA in September can provide the political impetus needed to turn the tide in the fight against TB and fast-track progress to attain the critical TB-related targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. We are particularly focused on the exciting development and investments in the pipeline of new TB vaccines and look forward to the launch of the Director General’s Tuberculosis Vaccine Accelerator Council.
The upcoming release of the WHO/UNICEF estimates of 2022 national immunization coverage (WUENIC 2023) on 18 July 2023, will be critical to provide the requisite assessments, data and strategies to member states and health partners in ongoing efforts of the Big Catch-up so as to ensure all children and adolescents receive lifesaving vaccinations despite the long-standing and new challenges.
We look forward to engaging with our partners following the much-anticipated release of those national, regional, and global coverage estimates and vaccine introduction data. These data are at the heart of national planning, targeting and tailoring investments, and global support for countries to achieve their commitments. The time to act is now.