A Critical Moment for Immunization - The Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa

By Jack Ndegwa

A Critical Moment for Immunization - The Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa

On February 24 to 25, 2016, the ACTION Global Health Advocacy Partnership was very pleased to attend the first ever the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa (MCIA) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The conference, hosted by the World Health Organization’s Regional Offices for Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean in conjunction with the African Union, brought together African leaders—including health and finance ministers and policy makers—civil society, technical experts, donors and other partners to renew their commitment to expanding immunization access and coverage in Africa. 

The conference represented a political opportunity for civil society members and policymakers alike to publically affirm their deep commitment to ensure that every African child, everywhere, has full access to life-saving vaccines.  With one in five African children currently lacking access to all needed and routine vaccines, African leaders utilized this opportunity by signing a declaration committing themselves to keep immunization at the forefront of efforts to reduce child mortality, morbidity and disability. In his welcome address, the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Mr. Hailemariam Desalegn called on African Union Member States to give immunization the highest level of attention, noting that investing in immunization will protect the future of children in Africa, enabling them to grow up healthy and giving them the chance to become productive adults.

Delivering the keynote address, Jakaya Kikwete, former president of Tanzania, called on African States to focus on promoting universal health coverage beginning with universal immunization. African Union Commissioner for Social Affairs, Dr. Sidiki Mustapha Kaloko called the conference “the start of a new era of health on our continent.”  He called on Ministries of Health across the continent to take the lead in advocating for the scale up of immunization programmes in their communities.

High level speakers across the African continent strongly supported the need for improved vaccination coverage rates across the continent.  Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, noted that “It is unacceptable that one in five African children lack access to lifesaving vaccines.” Chair of the Gavi Board Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, looked beyond the human cost of low vaccination rates to note the economic impacts as well: “We all agree that vaccines are one of the most cost-effective solutions in global health,’ she said. ‘Investing in immunization programs will enable African countries to see an outstanding economic benefit.”

Civil society organizations also lent their voices to the event, and several hosted a joint CSO side event to painstakingly discuss the methods and strategies they could use to hold governments accountable for improving immunization coverage and access in Africa, aligned with the Global Vaccine Action Plan. Members of KANCO, CITAM+, Global Health Advocates France, and the ACTION Secretariat participated as core members of civil society, leading the organization of the CSO side event, developing a CSO declaration for the conference, and feeding into the formal conference agenda. ACTION supported KANCO grassroots advocate Irene Kamau to speak on behalf of civil society in one of the main conference plenary sessions.

ACTION leveraged the Ministerial Conference to further its engagement with African Parliamentarians. KANCO, in collaboration with SABIN, worked with parliamentarians to draft a Parliamentary statement supporting the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa. Nine MPs participating in the conference from eight African countries signed the statement committing to establishing or strengthening national and African parliamentary caucuses on immunization and championing the increase of immunization services to the general public.

The Way Forward

As Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa noted, “The Ministerial Conference achieved its goal of uniting leaders from across Africa behind the single goal of reaching every child with the vaccines they need. Now, we will carry this momentum forward from Addis Ababa.” In June 2016, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn will present the Addis Ababa Declaration on Immunization to the African Heads of States at the 26th Summit of the African Union. Support from heads of state will further empower countries to increase efforts to mobilize resources for national immunization programs. The declaration commits countries to increasing domestic financial investments in order to deliver routine immunizations and roll out new vaccines.

Jack Ndegwa is policy and advocacy manager for the Kenya Aids NGOs Consortium, a member of the ACTION global health advocacy partnership.