Strengthen routine immunization programs, give mothers a reason to smile

This mother is happy to see her daughter receiving a vaccination during an immunization session at the health clinic in Bobo-Dioulasso, Burkina Faso. Photo by: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Frederic Courbet

Innovations come in different sizes, shapes and forms, but the best innovations have one thing in common: They make the world a better place to live.

Vaccines, which help ensure the good health of billions of people, are one of the most important innovations of the past millennium. To help grasp their significance, think about smallpox. Of all the challenges humanity faced at the turn of the 21st century, smallpox — one of history’s most deadly diseases — was not among them. That was because Edward Jenner’s novel vaccine had helped eradicate the egregious disease 20 years prior. Now, we are making considerable strides toward the eradication of polio, another vaccine-preventable disease.

We are able to make this progress because of innovation both in the lab and in the field. Since 2000, labs have produced new vaccines to fight the scourge of dengue fever and the two leading childhood killers: pneumonia and diarrheal disease. In the field, innovative training programs are changing the way district medical officers coordinate efforts to reach children with lifesaving vaccines.

I have led one of these programs, EPIVAC, since it was founded by French nonprofit L'Agence de Médecine Préventive in 2002. EPIVAC uses a nontraditional mix of classroom and field work to build the capacity of DMOs to implement immunization programs while they work toward a degree in public health management or applied vaccinology.

Trained and skilled DMOs are critical to sustaining efficient, high-quality immunization programs. While a sufficient supply of vaccines is always a concern on the ground, vaccines are nearly useless if there are not people skilled enough to deliver them. This is the gap we work to address on a daily basis, and one that has constantly benefited from new thinking and new approaches.

Under our program, EPIVAC graduates are given the tools they need to strengthen routine immunization programs in their communities. As a result, districts with EPIVAC graduates have significantly higher immunization coverage than those without, and graduates have positively impacted an estimated 6 million lives.

The most rewarding part of my work is to see the commitment and willingness of district leaders, many of whom serve their communities and are recognized nationally and globally. For me, their work is validated every time I walk into a waiting room at a vaccination program and see children in good health and their mothers smiling.

Unfortunately, not every mother has a reason to smile yet. Worldwide, one in five children do not receive the vaccines they need, and many of these children live in the world’s poorest communities. We need additional resources channeled through global conveners such as the GAVI Alliance to ensure the health systems are in place to reach all children with immunizations.

We also need to recognize and promote innovation for the global good. Our program was recently honored with the 2014 Vaccine Innovation Award from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which I hope can serve as inspiration for others who are developing innovative solutions to ensure every child everywhere receives the vaccines they need.

We have seen with smallpox and polio what can happen when the world unites against a common threat. There had been no precedent to tackling these two diseases, but innovative vaccines and approaches have achieved extraordinary results. Through further innovation and implementation, we can give all mothers reason to smile.

Want to learn more? Check out the Healthy Means campaign site and tweet us using #HealthyMeans.

Healthy Means is an online conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Concern Worldwide, Gavi, GlaxoSmithKline, International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Johnson & Johnson and the United Nations Population Fund to showcase new ideas and ways we can work together to expand health care and live better lives.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Aristide Aplogan

    Aristide Aplogan is program leader, field epidemiology and vaccinology and director of the EpiVacPlus program at the Agence de Médecine Préventive. In these roles, he oversees the implementation of epidemiology and vaccinology activities in Africa; provides input on strategic development; serves as technical director for training programs including EPIVAC; supervises, monitors, and evaluates studies and interventions; and manages regional teams.