Amb Minata Cessouma, AU Commissioner for Humanitarian and Social Affairs

Vaccines save lives and protect communities. They are one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent terrible diseases that cause misery, pain and death, from ripping through the population. They are critical in helping countries to realise their economic and development objectives. And in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are more important than ever.

Despite these undeniable facts, the advantages of immunization are not equally shared. There are vast differences in the coverage levels between and within countries.  The African Vaccination Week is commemorated annually during the last week of April.

Often the people who suffer most from this inequality are the poorest, the most disadvantaged and those located in fragile, conflict settings, as they struggle to access immunization and other basic services.

The COVID-19 pandemic created a further roadblock, disrupting regular immunization programmes for children all around the world. In 2021, the world witnessed an unprecedented fall in regular immunization rates: 18 million children across the globe, including 8.4 million in Africa, missed out on their vaccination, according to UNICEF and World Health Organization (WHO) figures. This leaves countries vulnerable to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as polio, measles and cholera.

Moreover, as we speak, the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases is increasing, representing a whopping 93% of the ongoing outbreaks in Africa.

But we can do better. We can keep vaccine-preventable diseases at bay and save more lives. Seven years ago, African nations declared their dedication to providing greater access to vaccines and a brighter future for African people through the Addis Ababa Declaration on Immunization, a roadmap for progress on the vaccination front.

At the February 2023 African Union summit, leaders vowed to energize their commitment to support and expand immunization programmes. The reason is simple: anything short of intense, collaborative efforts, involving communities and a wide variety of partners, accompanied by political will, will not suffice. Without our unwavering resolve, immunization coverage won’t reach the levels of 2019 until 2027.

Immunization is essential for our right to the best physical and mental well-being, as well as a crucial investment for a healthier, more secure and thriving Africa for all: this will help Member States in fulfilling their health, economic and development objectives. We have the power to counter vaccine-preventable diseases that have the potential to threaten African and indeed global peace and security, health systems and communities.

So as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries need to prioritise The Big Catch-Up, with an emphasis on the most vulnerable children, in the hardest-to-reach places. It will require creativity, hard work, and political will, as African leaders have promised. It is essential to continue to promote the importance of vaccination and work towards ensuring that everyone has access to life-saving vaccines. No Child can be Left Behind.