Immunization staff vaccinate a child as part of an integrated health outreach program in Ratanakiri province, Cambodia. Photo: @UNICEF Cambodia / Antoine Raab

This is World Immunization Week (April 24-30), an annual reminder that thanks to vaccines, many of us grew up without seeing a loved one die or suffer life-long disability from vaccine-preventable diseases. 

But not everyone is so fortunate. Two years ago, in East Asia and the Pacific, 2.4 million babies did not receive their three recommended doses of DTP vaccines, exposing them to diphtheria, pertussis or tetanus.

More than eight out of 100 children did not get the initial routine measles dose in their first year of life, putting them at risk of dying or living with disabilities. 

There are many reasons for children not receiving their recommended vaccines, and these were exacerbated during the Covid-19 crisis. While countries responded to the pandemic, essential health services were disrupted, including immunization programs. Children missed out on critical life-saving vaccines. We are now playing catch-up. 

On a positive note, health systems galvanized to immunize whole populations with the Covid-19 vaccine. Countries ramped up their systems – ideally for the long term, but mostly for the short term. The time is ripe to build on this momentum and protect all children in the Asia-Pacific region from preventable diseases and death. 

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) can strengthen routine immunization and reach all the under-vaccinated, or children who have never been vaccinated before – the zero-dose children.

We don’t work in isolation, and we have strong relationships with governments and key partners, such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization, the International Federation of the Red Cross, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) among others.

Civil society and faith-based organizations also play a significant role in advocacy and community engagement – important in reaching more people. None of us can do it alone.   

Investing in immunization, vaccines and reaching each child is cost-effective. It contributes to saving lives, prevents the spread of diseases, builds healthier societies and promotes inclusive socio-economic development, which should be the goal of every business that aims to make a difference.

Our partnership with Pampers helped to eliminate maternal and neonatal tetanus in 26 countries, including Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Timor-Leste and the Philippines in East Asia and the Pacific; close to a million newborn lives have been saved, and 300 million vaccines have been donated to protect 100 million women and their babies. 

UNICEF, together with our sister organizations, has been at the center of supporting countries since the Expanded Program of Immunization started in 1974. We procure 2 billion routine vaccines annually on behalf of countries and support to strengthen countries’ systems and community engagement in delivering vaccines to reach the last child. 

Through the COVAX Facility, UNICEF is leveraging its unique experience as the largest single vaccine buyer in the world on the procurement of Covid-19 vaccine doses, as well as freight, logistics, and storage. 

All children should have a chance to have a fulfilling life and to survive past their fifth birthday. We are clear, immunization saves lives – up to 3 million each year. Vaccines are safe and effective. They give us the best and most cost-effective protection from infectious diseases and protect our societies from various outbreaks. 

Now is the time to leverage the systems and innovations, political commitment and unprecedented interest in vaccines from the public to benefit routine immunization, for children, adolescents, women and elderly people. 

Business can help make a difference for every child by providing strategic financial support through grants, but also with expertise and innovative approaches to rethink supply chains, as well as advocating at the highest level to influence stronger investments in health systems fit for children.

Working together, we can reimagine a fairer world, where all children realize their right to good health. We at UNICEF thank those who have already supported us on this journey. 

Debora Comini is regional director of UNICEF East Asia and Pacific.