In 1990 about 12 million children under five were dying each year around the world, about half of them (5.1 million) from vaccine-preventable diseases. In the three decades since there’s been a modest decrease in the number of children who die from other causes, but the number of child deaths caused by diseases for which there are vaccines fell to 1.8 million: a two-thirds decrease.
Yet two of the leading causes of child mortality, pneumococcal pneumonia and rotavirus diarrhoea, are preventable by vaccines, and measles – one of the world’s most contagious diseases – still kills 140,000 people annually, mainly children under five.
Given the enormous ill health and loss of life caused by vaccine-preventable diseases, promoting the survival and development of children has been one of Results’ priority issues since we started in Australia in 1986. In fact, Results was one of the lead agencies (in collaboration with international partners) advocating for the World Summit for Children in 1990 – a landmark event focused on agreeing goals that would improve the lives of the children.
One of the childhood illnesses on which Results has long had a special focus is polio. Until vaccines were introduced in the mid-20th century polio, polio paralysed hundreds of thousands of children around the world every year, and had been endemic in Australia.
Since 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) began as a concerted effort to eradicate polio, global incidence of the disease has been reduced by more than 99%, and the number of countries with endemic polio from 125 to two. In September 2020, the African continent was declared free of wild polio virus. These successes have been achieved primarily due to vaccination.
Results also works with national and international partners to promote action to reduce the toll from other vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, primarily by promoting affordable and sustainable access to vaccines for the world’s poorest countries through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (Gavi).
As well as vaccinating children, the work of both GPEI and Gavi strengthens health care systems, in part by building domestic political support for immunisation. This helps to ensure that vaccines are available where they are most needed, stored and transported correctly, delivered by trained health workers and that children have up-to-date records of the immunisations they have received.
2019 and 2020 were important years for child immunisation and polio. Within the space of about six months, both GPEI and Gavi held ‘replenishment’ conferences, where investing and implementing countries come together and pledge funds for the work of these organisations over the ensuing several years.
“It’s really hard to see a child struggling to breathe … It was hard to make eye contact with their mothers, who were looking on and stroking their children’s foreheads… Being in that room reinforced for me what a miracle vaccines can be. Pneumonia is such a terrible disease, but there is a new tool that can prevent many cases of it — and prevent them rather easily.” - Melinda Gates