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The imperative of closing the immunization gap

Publication: The imperative of closing the immunization gap

By: Rep. Ami Bera (D- Calif.) and Anuradha Gupta

Both of us have seen firsthand just how essential vaccines are to saving children’s lives. One, as a physician and former chief medical officer of Sacramento County, Calif., has implemented domestic immunization programs to protect California children. The other, while overseeing India’s public health program and the recent eradication of polio there, has seen how vaccines protect against some of the world’s deadliest diseases.

That’s why we recognize World Immunization Week as an important reminder of the enormous positive impact of vaccines on global health and development. This year, the week focuses on closing the immunization gap and advocating for equitable access so that children in poor countries can get the same vaccines available to American children. During this time — April 24–30 — all of us should do our part to ensure that all children around the world have access to the life-saving vaccinations they need.

Thankfully, even after the recent measles outbreak in California drew attention to the issue of unvaccinated children in the U.S., vaccination rates in this country are still very high, and most Americans have never witnessed children die of diseases such as yellow fever or rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea, a disease so deadly it annually kills 450,000 children under the age of 5. In the U.S., it can be easy to take vaccines for granted. But in countries like India, parents value vaccination because far too many have seen loved ones — children, cousins, friends — die of these diseases.

Immunization saves nearly 3 million lives worldwide every year. Yet, more than 22 million children do not receive vaccinations for common diseases, such as measles, meningitis and whooping cough, making them vulnerable to sickness and disability.

We both firmly believe that access to vaccines is fundamental and one of the most effective ways to protect people from disease. That is why the work of organizations like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is so important.

Every child should have a chance at a productive life and contributing to his or her country’s growth. It is a blessing that in the United States, children have access to the vaccines necessary for them to become healthy, self-sufficient members of society.

But access to vaccines is a critical issue in developing countries. In some, a simple injection or oral drops will prevent children from succumbing to potentially fatal diseases. Yet these vaccines are not available to many families, who may live in remote deserts, dense jungles, urban slums or refugee camps, far from roads and refrigerators to deliver and preserve the vaccines. As a result, 1.5 million children under the age of five die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases, mostly in developing countries.

Investing in immunization is the right thing to do, but it’s also smart, offering a lifetime of protection at very little cost. Vaccines help cut healthcare costs by preventing diseases that are very expensive to treat. They also keep kids in school and increase long-term productivity.

The science is irrefutable: Vaccines are one of the most important medical advancements of our lifetime and the most effective tool we have to prevent infectious disease. Here in the United States and in India, our pasts have proven that diseases don’t discriminate. This World Immunization Week, let’s work together and continue to invest in vaccines to close the immunization gap and keep kids healthy around the world.

Bera, a physician, has represented California’s 7th Congressional District since 2013. He sits on the Foreign Affairs and the Science, Space and Technology committees. Gupta is deputy CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which works to save children’s lives and protect people’s health by increasing access to immunization in the world’s poorest countries.