By Dr. Chizoba Wonodi
Nearly two years in the making, Nigeria’s plan to convene a National Vaccine Summit came to pass in April. More than 1000 delegates from all walks of life - from political big wigs to orphan children – assembled in the majestic International Conference Centre Abuja.
The colorful atmosphere and vibrant mood belied the somber reason for holding the Summit in the first place – that far too many children were dying every year from diseased that can be prevented by vaccines; the country needed to do better.
As the demographic powerhouse of Africa, when Nigeria sneezes, Africa catches a cold. One in 5 children that die in Africa is Nigerian. Sadly, in 2010, more than 800,000 Nigerian children did not live to see their fifth birthday. A quarter of these kids died from vaccine preventable diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, meningitis and measles. With the potential of vaccines to save so many lives, it is not acceptable that nearly 1 million Nigerian children remain unvaccinated every year.
That is why the Summit is timely and relevant. It was a rallying cry by the broadest coalition ever assembled on vaccines in Nigeria. More than 20 organizations came together to find solution to the problems. IVAC is proud to be on the roll call that included government, international partners, civil society and the private sector. Our mission was to grab the attention of political leaders and energize the public to take action on routine immunization.
If the attendance at the Summit is any thing to go by, we succeeded. The Secretary to the Federal Government, Senator Pius Anyim, declared the event open. The Minister of State for Health, Dr. Muhammad Pate, gave the keynote address and Sir. Brian Greenwood of the London School of Hygiene, gave a special guest lecture. It was a rare honor to have Sir Greenwoood and indeed a homecoming for him, having started his public health career in Nigeria.
After two days of deliberations and presentations, the messages that emerged were clear and consistent – vaccines are cost effective, governments, partners and private sector must do more to finance vaccine programs, every child must be vaccinated to attain their full potential. It is their right.
Nothing brought these messages more poignantly alive than when the orphans sang "we are the children, we are the future, please don’t let us down". I was moved to tears. Through misty eyes, I looked around me and saw grown men and women crying.
Now the Summit is over, the tears have dried and the cheers have died; the question on everyone's lips, including Mrs. Melinda Gates, who tweeted a shout out to us, is "what next?”
We find ourselves at a crossroad. On one hand is an ambitious agenda that calls for universal vaccine coverage and sustainable financing by 2015. On the other hand is the stark reality that without a concrete plan, money and momentum, it will remain business as usual.
There is however reason for optimism, because we have powerful allies on our side. The First Lady, Dame Patience, who hosted delegates to a dinner at the Presidential Villa, was decorated as an ambassador for immunization. Your excellency, we will be calling on you soon to perform your ambassadorial duties. As the mother of the nation, nobody is better placed than you to be an advocate for children.
To my mind, the main theme that emerged from the Summit is a call for Nigerians to look inwards and find support for immunization. Dame Patience called for NAVI (think Nigerian GAVI) and the Health Reform Foundation of Nigeria (HERFON) called for the well-meaning and well-placed in society to volunteer as vaccine ambassadors in their communities. These are interesting ideas.
The biggest challenge now is to follow through. In this Decade of Vaccines, we have an unprecedented global momentum to propel this national awakening. We need to take action now to build the future we desire. What a wonderful future we will build if in the next ten years, we can scale up coverage of key vaccines against Hib, pneumococcus, rotavirus, measles and pertussis, to 90%! We can save over 600,000 lives and avert 17 billion dollars in cost and productivity loss. Come on, one and all, let’s rally for vaccines.
Dr. Chizoba Wonodi, MD PhD, is an Epidemiologist at The International Vaccine Access Center