RESULTS UK Health Advocacy Officer, Megan Wilson-Jones reflects on the impact of vaccines on women and girls during World Immunisation Week.

It is the cruel lottery of life that will determine your chances of surviving in the world depending on three simple questions:

Where were you born?Where do you live? What is your gender?

The answers to these questions will have a significant impact on your ability to survive the first five years of your life, attend school, get a job, survive childbirth and live a long, healthy and prosperous life.

The UK Government is committed to helping end this cruel lottery and has strategically put women and girls at the heart of their development assistance. The benefits of investing in women and girls can be truly transformational for individuals, families, communities and society as a whole. Investing in the health, education, security, and economic and political empowerment of women and girls is vital to economic and social development, and to the attainment of all Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Through these dimensions, the UK is working to break the cycle of poverty.

Photo Credit: Pierre Holtz for UNICEF
Photo Credit: Pierre Holtz for UNICEF

Arguably your start in life all begins with health: surviving birth, reaching your fifth birthday and living a healthy life through adolescence and adulthood. Vaccines are one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools to protect all ages against life-threatening diseases. The WHO currently recommends 11 vaccines to protect children and adolescents from the leading causes of death and disability. The GAVI Alliance, a global public-private partnership, has been instrumental in expanding coverage of these vaccines in the world’s poorest countries.

The UK Government was a founding member and has been a long-standing financial and political supporter of GAVI. Since its inception in 2000, GAVI has supported countries to immunise an additional 440 million children, saving 6 million lives. Vaccines not only protect children against the leading causes of child mortality, they are also vital to improving the health of adolescent girls and women. By supporting countries to include human papillomavirus (HPV) and combined measles-rubella (MR) vaccines, GAVI is committed to protecting the health of women and children as central to its mission.

Every year, 266,000 women die from cervical cancer, of which 85% of these deaths occur in developing countries. For women in the poorest regions of the world, cervical cancer, caused by HPV, is the leading causes of cancer mortality. In 2013, GAVI announced it would support countries to introduce HPV vaccine, which protects against 70% of cervical cancer cases. Since cancer services, including screening and treatments, are extremely limited in developing countries, prevention through vaccines is the most cost-effective and sustainable strategy to address the increasing burden of cancer.

GAVI HPV vaccine picUnlike the majority of vaccines administered to children during the first 2 years of life, the HPV vaccine is given to girls aged between 9 and 13 years. This poses a number of challenges since the timing falls outside of the existing immunisation schedule and visits to health clinics are not routine for young girls. However, vaccinating this age group also provides an important window of opportunity to deliver other health interventions. Through GAVI support, over 30 million girls in over 40 countries will be protected from cervical cancer with the HPV vaccine between now and 2020, saving an estimated half a million lives. With new evidence emerging that 2 shots provide sufficient protection, as opposed to previously recommended 3 shots, this highlights the increasing cost-effectiveness, including reducing the time and burden on healthcare workers to deliver the vaccine.

GAVI is also supporting the roll-out of the measles-rubella (MR) vaccine in 49 countries by 2020. Measles is a leading cause of death in children under five, and rubella can cause miscarriage, stillbirth and severe birth defects in babies. Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are all too common in the developing world. By investing in the HPV and MR vaccine, along with investments in safe pregnancy and childbirth, the UK Government is leading efforts to improve the health of women and girls around the world.

We have the tools and the know-how to dramatically improve the health of women and girls around the world but we require strong political and financial commitment to continue this progress. As GAVI approaches its second replenishment later this year, we call on governments around the world to commit to improving the lives of children, and also women and girls.

World Immunisation Week is a time to reflect on the millions of lives that vaccines continue to save every year, not only among infants and children but also among adolescent girls and women. By investing in vaccines we are helping to give everyone an equal start to life, helping to change the random and cruel lottery of life. GAVI, with the support of donors including the UK, are playing an important role in changing how answers to the three simple questions of where you are born, where you live and what is your gender, impact on our chances of survival.

During World Immunisation Week, the ACTION global health advocacy partnership re-released the Donor Immunisation Score Card with the latest figures on whether donors are delivering on their commitments to the GAVI Alliance.

The accountability tool shows the UK is on track to deliver on its commitments of £814 million pledged in 2011 and is one of a few donors to have pledged funds through to 2015, an indicator of long-term support. In total, UK pledges are helping to vaccinate more than 80 million children and save the lives of over 1.4 million children between 2011 and 2015. The UK should continue to show strong leadership to GAVI in the next replenishment later this year. This will encourage other donors to step up, which will be vital to ensuring GAVI is fully funded to implement its 2016-2020 strategy.