World Immunization Week: Day 1 - How cuts to Australian aid threaten children’s lives

Guest Blog: Rachel Achterstraat, ACTION Project Coordinator, RESULTS International (Australia)

Every 20 seconds, a baby or toddler will die from a disease that can be prevented by a simple vaccine. Most of these deaths happen in developing countries because children go without the immunisations and lack access to other health services that parents in wealthy nations take for granted.

As usual, it is the poorest children in the poorest countries who are least likely to be immunised, and it is those same children who are at the greatest risk of being exposed to life-threatening, preventable diseases like tetanus, polio and measles.

This week, April 21-28, is World Immunisation Week, and around the world we acknowledge that all children have the right to life and health, no matter where they live.  And for a very small amount per dose (13c per life for a polio vaccine!) governments can make one of the smartest public health investments available today.

By helping kids to stay healthy, vaccines remove a major barrier to human development. Immunised children have higher cognitive abilities and are more likely to live to see their 5thbirthday. Immunised kids are more likely to thrive at school and go on to be productive members of society. By reducing illness and long-term disability, vaccines also generate savings for health systems and families. Health workers are freed up to care for other needs and parents spend less time looking after sick children.

Given all this it is little wonder that the Australian Government dramatically scaled up its investment in immunisation programs last year. In June 2011 the Government announced a threefold increase in its commitment to the GAVI Alliance, an innovative public-private partnership focused on saving children’s lives through increased access to vaccines.

This $200 million contribution was viewed by other donors as Australia ‘punching above its weight’ in the development arena and better yet, promises to help directly immunize some 7.7 million children from killer diseases over the next four years. 7.7 million children, that’s not a bad effort considering that we, as a country, gives slightly more than 1% of the total budget to foreign aid.

But now, just as Australia makes progress to meet our fair share of overseas aid, there are rumors that a tightening Federal budget is placing at risk the long-standing bipartisan promise to increase aid contributions to 0.5% of GNI by 2015.

The Government went to the last two elections with a commitment to lift overseas aid expenditure from the equivalent of 35 cents to 50 cents in every $100 dollars of our national income by 2015. This doesn’t quite meet the amount required to reach the targets set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, but it would bring our nation a whole lot closer.

Scaling back the commitment would be a giant leap backwards for Australian efforts to play our part in helping to lift people out of the devastating cycle of poverty. Almost one-fifth of infants, that’s 24 million children under the age of one, still miss out on life saving vaccinations. If organisations like GAVI do not continue to receive funding, there is a danger that its vital work to introduce new vaccines and expand existing ones will not reach those precious kids who are most at risk.

We must protect the aid budget from political posturing. We must continue to invest in effective, life-saving health interventions like vaccines. And above all, we mustn’t succumb to the temptation to secure a budget surplus when the greater and real deficit is the millions of lives at stake.