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WHO: Immunizations Save 2-3 Million Lives Each Year

  • Lisa Schlein

A mother holds her baby as he receives a pneumococcal vaccination during a national vaccination campaign in Managua, April 15, 2013.

A mother holds her baby as he receives a pneumococcal vaccination during a national vaccination campaign in Managua, April 15, 2013.

The World Health Organization estimates immunization saves the lives of two- to three million children every year. In advance of World Immunization Week, which starts April 20, the U.N. agency is calling on nations to help immunize more children against preventable diseases so more lives can be saved.

The World Health Organization estimates nearly 80 percent of infants worldwide are receiving the full course of vaccinations against killer diseases, such as diphtheria, measles and whooping cough. But 20 percent, or 22 million children, are not protected from dangerous diseases with basic vaccines.

WHO Director of Immunization, Vaccination and Biologicals, Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, says the lack of universal coverage is the reason why global efforts to eradicate polio and to eliminate measles are behind schedule.

In addition, he notes cost is putting some of the newer vaccines out of the reach of children in poor countries.

"The newer vaccines that are available against the two top killers of children-pneumonia and diarrhea-that these vaccines are not accessible to the majority of children in the world," said Okwo-Bele. "And, we know that child deaths will be reduced by an additional one to one-and-one- half million deaths with increased access to all vaccines.”

The World Health Organization reports most of the 22 million unvaccinated children live in Africa and Southeast Asia. It says 10 countries account for 80 percent of those who lack immunization against preventable diseases. These countries include Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

Dr. Okwo-Bele says inefficient health and delivery systems threaten the ability of poorer nations to receive good quality vaccines. For example, he notes many countries have problems receiving a good supply of vaccines because they are unable to keep them at the correct temperature.

He says many vaccines are being packaged and designed to meet the needs of developing countries.

"In Benin last year, for the first time we used the vaccine, the new vaccine that has been produced for combating Meningitis A epidemics in Benin and West Africa," Okwo-Bele explained. "So, we used that vaccine outside the cold chain for up to four days in district and health facility levels. And, this is a big step to help with vaccination campaigns especially in these areas where we do not have a ready cold chain.”

The World Health Organization says vaccination is the best way to protect children against preventable diseases that could kill them. It says health officials and governments must do a better job of communicating the benefits provided by vaccines.

It says it is important to shatter myths that claim vaccines do not work or have damaging and long-term side effects and can even be fatal.

The World Health Organization rejects assertions that measles vaccines can cause Autism. It says this is false.