The power of vaccines

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A baby is vaccinated at a center for preventive health in Hanoi 

This week more than 180 countries are celebrating World Immunization Week. 

Vaccines are a life-saving and cost effective public health intervention we often take for granted. They provide immunity against various illnesses causing death and disability that a whole new generation is lucky enough not to remember.

Vaccines helped eradicate smallpox in 1977 and are on their way to eradicating polio and eliminating neonatal tetanus and measles. Newer vaccines protect against some types of pneumonia and diarrhea (the two biggest disease-specific killers of children) and various cancers.

A fully immunized child is more likely to attend school, have greater cognitive abilities, and be a more productive member of society and less likely to be disabled.

In economic terms, investment in immunization offers an impressive rate of return between 15 percent and 20 percent. Scaling up the use of vaccines in 72 of the world's poorest countries could save over six million lives and avert more than US$150 billion in treatment costs and lost productivity between 2011 and 2020.

Vaccine programs reach many children by routine services or campaigns. Globally, 83 percent of children are being reached with essential vaccines. These delivery mechanisms provide opportunities to deliver other mother and child interventions. Vaccines and their delivery system have helped Vietnam to be on track to meet various health-related Millennium Development Goals.

Over the last 26 years, Vietnam's Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) has scaled up access to vaccines, saving 42,000 lives and averting more than 6.7 million cases of polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles and pertussis. Over 1.7 million Vietnamese infants (96 percent) receive routine immunization against 10 important childhood diseases.

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In the last two years in Vietnam, the percentage of new-born children receiving protection against Hepatitis B has increased from 21 percent to 76 percent. All these achievements are due to the tireless efforts of front line health workers, often working in difficult circumstances, and sustained government and development partner commitment.

However, these obvious successes should not be taken for granted and approximately 20 perent of deaths of children under five in Vietnam are vaccine preventable.

The first "vaccine" a child receives, breast milk, is free and massively reduces the chances of illness. Unfortunately access to this simple natural intervention and available manufactured vaccines is still not possible for one fifth of children globally.

UNICEF, WHO and other GAVI Alliance partners have been instrumental in supporting countries to introduce potent new vaccines that otherwise could not afford them. For example, Vietnam has recently taken the bold step to introduce the rubella vaccine later this year, by a campaign reaching 23 million children between nine months 14 years old and by routine services to later avert 83,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome.

Vietnam is using evidence to consider introducing others in the next few years. Vietnam's domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity is scaling up and, if this meets minimum global standards, may strengthen the country's economy further.

During World Immunization Week, Vietnam will take action to highlight the importance and benefits of immunization and increase the trust of population to immunization though mass media and communication at national and sub-national levels.

Strong collaboration and partnership between government and development partners is essential to ensure resources are used effectively and efficiently. Domestic and foreign funding commitment and strong technical oversight are crucial. These will optimize quality, safety standards and help ensure every child receives the vaccines they are entitled to.     

We believe that every child in Vietnam has the right to be fully vaccinated. This is not only on ethical grounds - to reduce the chances of their individual, family or communities tragedy - but because vaccines have the power not only to save but also to transform lives.

Reaching every last child improves their life prospects, that of future generations and contributes to the overall growth and economic development of Vietnam.

By Takeshi Kasai and Lotta Sylwander
*The writers are the World Health Organization and UNICEF representatives respectively

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