Conferences. How many have you been to which were boring and pointless? All too often you will meet like-minded people, maybe make some useful connections through networking, have some nice chats, and drink a lot of tea and coffee.

Attending a conference can be a useful way to develop your own knowledge, but in development (and I’m sure with many other things) learning and talking to those with similar interests and views doesn’t necessarily have an impact. 

But when Ministers of Health and Finance get together to discuss the importance of immunisation, like they did at the inaugural Ministerial Conference on Immunisation in Africa (MCIA) last February, things can, and do, change. Political leadership by high level decision makers at a national and regional level is essential as countries take ownership of their own immunisation programmes and rely less and less on donor support.

The MCIA was organised by the WHO, the Government of Ethiopia, and the African Union, and had a very specific objective: to galvanise new commitments and solutions in order to redouble efforts to build strong, sustainable, inclusive immunisation systems that ensure no children suffered from vaccine preventable diseases. In 2015, one in five children in Africa did not receive basic vaccines and it was the WHO region with the lowest immunisation coverage. Political leadership to address this was urgently needed. And until we achieve universal immunisation, will remain so.

The conference provided an opportunity for decision makers to see strong, public support from a wide range of immunisation stakeholders, including civil society, parliamentarians, and religious leaders, for the need to address the immunisation inequities within Africa. Having so many different groups make official statements during the conference helped install a sense of urgency in decision makers to take action.

One of the main outcomes from the conference was the Addis Declaration on Immunisation (ADI), a political statement and pledge by 49 countries to ensure that everyone in Africa – regardless of who they are or where they live – receives the full benefits of immunisation. It included 10 commitments, including increasing vaccine-related funding, strengthening supply chains and delivery systems, and making universal access to vaccines a cornerstone of health and development efforts.

Since February last year, parliamentarians and civil society have continued to engage. They have used the ADI to ask how heads of government will embrace their commitments, highlighted it at global and regional events to hold decision makers to account, and have engaged in the drafting of a Roadmap which will help guide country actions to make the commitments a reality.

In January 2017, the ADI was endorsed by the African Union. This elevated immunisation to the highest regional political discussion level in Africa.

One year on from MCIA, it’s been clear that because of determined political leadership at the highest level, immunisation is firmly at the top of the development agenda. MCIA was not just a conference, it was the start of important leadership to drive progress on immunisation across Africa.

We need this leadership to become concrete actions that increase domestic financing and ensure the implementation of policies that are designed to strengthen routine immunisation programmes. Without this, we will not ensure all children are immunised with all recommended vaccines and we will not see an end to the unnecessary loss of life from a vaccine preventable disease.                                                                                                                           

You can read more about the role of political will for country ownership of immunisation in our latest policy brief, From Donor Funding to Domestic Leaders.