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It’s World Immunisation Week, Let’s Talk About Vaccines

29 Apr 2022
By Sarah Meredith and Negaya Chorley
A person prepares a vaccine. Source: Governor Tom Wolf

Since the onset of the pandemic, it seems like all we’re talking about is vaccines. Despite this, investment in vaccine equity and distribution across many diseases is still grossly inadequate.

The impacts of the virus itself have been hard enough to deal with, and the constant commentary it has come with can be exhausting. But the good side is that we have learned that with the right resources and global focus, we can create effective vaccines in record time.

In the early days of the pandemic, it didn’t take much for COVID-19 to take hold. There was nothing standing in the way of explosive growth of this new virus for which people had no protection against. We had no vaccine. The world stopped.

Only with a vaccine did things open up again. Global solidarity and cooperation saw vaccines developed in record time. By the time jabs hit arms, however, the virus had got ahead of us, and we were forced to play catch-up.

The harsh reality is that this is true for many diseases. The story of immunisation is much bigger than COVID-19. In fact, infectious diseases like COVID-19 aren’t rare. Polio, tuberculosis, and measles are all examples of diseases which have been largely brought under control thanks to the life-saving power of immunisation. We are on the brink of eradicating polio once and for all, only the second disease in human history.

Since developing those vaccines, we have built our collective immunity against these terrible diseases over decades. Australia enjoys excellent coverage against many infectious diseases thanks to a comprehensive and well-supported program of immunisations, especially during childhood. Vaccines have literally changed the course of history. This is on full display when one considers how many more children now live to see their fifth birthday, in part due to the extensive roll out of childhood vaccines.

Not everyone enjoys this privilege, however. In fact, polio and tuberculosis remains a threat for millions around the world where rates of immunisation are still dangerously low. It’s especially true in Australia’s own neighbourhood. Southeast Asia shoulders the highest burden of new cases of tuberculosis anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the last outbreak of polio in the region was brought under control only two years ago due to the rapid response of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative through UNICEF and the World Health Organization in Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.

It’s hard to imagine these diseases, often thought to be consigned to history, posing a threat to the lives and wellbeing of millions of people, let alone at Australia’s doorstep, just a stone’s throw from its northern coast. The reality is that while a disease is a threat somewhere, it is a threat everywhere.  Without adequate investment from governments to health initiatives, we cannot contain or eradicate these diseases.

Australia must do all it can to fund the prevention and eradication of these diseases by increasing overseas aid and funding to global health security measures. The Australian government currently invests in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, the Global Fund to Fight HIV/Aids, tuberculosis, and malaria and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, through overseas aid, but the money is due to end and the need is greater than ever before.

Two critical moments exist on the horizon for the government to step up: the replenishments for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in September and the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in October. Australia could rally other countries to provide increased funding and pledge significant new investment in the fight against these infectious diseases. That’s what we are fighting for.

Controlling, and eventually eradicating, an infectious disease is an incredible challenge. When it comes to polio, it took a global coalition of nations, NGOs, health workers and billions of dollars to get where we are today — 99 percent eradication around the world. The marathon effort to eradicate diseases is fragile work, relying on constant surveillance, fundraising and immunisation programs to reach people in even the most remote places on the planet.

When the pandemic struck, we and the health community worried for the future of this hard-fought progress, as resources and money were redirected in an effort to suppress COVID-19. Despite this, only six new cases of polio emerged in 2021, meaning hard fought gains have not been lost. This means we’re now presented with a window of opportunity to deliver on a long-held promise to eradicate polio. With enough global solidarity, we will soon be able to say the same for diseases like tuberculosis, measles, and even malaria.

This promise, of course, relies on a continued commitment from world governments to support the effort. Australia has long recognised its own role with longstanding support for these global health organisations.

If Australia is serious about supporting the prosperity of everyone in the region, it must prioritise the health and wellbeing of its Asia-Pacific neighbours. Their health security is everyone’s alike.

Sarah Meredith is Regional Director (Oceania) for Global Citizen. Based in Melbourne, Sarah oversees Global Citizen’s efforts in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. She brings 13 years’ experience advising some of Australia’s federal and state government Cabinet Ministers, a Master of International and Community Development and has been involved with Global Citizen Festivals in New York, Montreal, Johannesburg and London and led campaigns that have resulted in close to $1 billion in commitments towards ending extreme poverty. 

Negaya Chorley is the CEO of Results International Australia and has 20 years experience in human rights and international development. She is passionate about creating spaces for people at the margins to inform policy-making at the local, national and global level. Negaya has led a number of organisations spanning refugees, youth development and women’s rights.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.