Why affordable vaccines are more important than ever

An MSF staff member squeezes out the last drop of vaccine for a young child as part of a mass vaccination campaign against cholera in Uganda, May 2018. © Stitching Pictures

© Stitching Pictures

© Stitching Pictures

It is easy to forget how important vaccines are when a disease is not visible in your community.

But when the threat is as close as it is now, with the emergence of COVID-19, everyone around the world is waiting hopefully for a vaccine that could protect us from it.

Every year, millions of lives are saved thanks to immunisation, which is widely recognised as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions.

However, nearly 20 million children are still unvaccinated or under-vaccinated worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), and in many developed countries, the anti-vaccine movement is growing.

Such views are rare among the communities where our teams work.

During immunisation campaigns in response to epidemics, it is common for people to walk for days at a time to get themselves or their children vaccinated.

“When you see the disease, you will never forget to get vaccinated.”
MSF international medical coordinator Myriam Henkens

This year, World Immunisation Week, 24-30 April, comes amid a global pandemic, with over 200 countries and territories registering COVID-19 cases.

At this critical time, we want to highlight why affordable vaccines are more important than ever.

Vaccination can be an emergency response to curb the spread of a disease – as is the case right now with measles in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where an epidemic has infected almost 300,000 people and killed more than 6,000 in just over a year.

It will be a similar situation if a vaccine to protect against COVID-19 is developed and made available while the current pandemic is still underway, allowing those people who are immunised to no longer run the risk of contracting and subsequently spreading the disease. 

However, this is not the only function of vaccination campaigns. Vaccines can also be a way of eradicating a disease completely.

Our teams in DRC are currently fighting the world's largest outbreak of measles, which has killed over 6,000 people, mostly children. © Alexis Huguet/MSF

Our teams in DRC are currently fighting the world's largest outbreak of measles, which has killed over 6,000 people, mostly children. © Alexis Huguet/MSF

Our teams in DRC are currently fighting the world's largest outbreak of measles, which has killed over 6,000 people, mostly children. © Alexis Huguet/MSF

In 1980, the WHO announced the eradication of smallpox worldwide, three years after the last natural case of the disease was registered.

It took a further two decades of worldwide effort to eliminate the disease completely.

Smallpox was the first and only human disease to be successfully eradicated to date. Thanks to this, future generations no longer need to be vaccinated against the disease, as there is no risk of being infected.

A pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is prepared in Yida camp, South Sudan. © Yann Libessart/MSF

© Yann Libessart/MSF

An MSF nurse prepares an inactive polio vaccine during a vaccination campaign in Lebanon. © Mario Fawaz/MSF

© Mario Fawaz/MSF

A pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is prepared in Yida camp, South Sudan. © Yann Libessart/MSF

© Yann Libessart/MSF

An MSF nurse prepares an inactive polio vaccine during a vaccination campaign in Lebanon. © Mario Fawaz/MSF

© Mario Fawaz/MSF

Although many diseases can now be prevented by vaccines, and some could even have been eradicated following the same smallpox model, our teams continue to witness patients dying from them on a daily basis.

These are lives lost to measles, polio, cholera, pneumococcal pneumonia – mostly children’s lives.

Even diphtheria, a disease that had already been eradicated in most of the world, to the point that almost no drugs were manufactured to combat it, has reappeared in countries such as Yemen due to the lack of routine vaccinations in the middle of a war.

The collapse of public health systems due to conflict is one of the major reasons for epidemics breaking out.

Over two million people have been displaced by civil war in Yemen. Outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria have exacerbated the already dire situation. © Al Hareth Al Maqaleh/MSF

In five years, over two million people have been displaced by civil war in Yemen. Recent outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria have exacerbated the already dire situation. © Al Hareth Al Maqaleh/MSF

In five years, over two million people have been displaced by civil war in Yemen. Recent outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria have exacerbated the already dire situation. © Al Hareth Al Maqaleh/MSF

When routine vaccination programmes can no longer be guaranteed, diseases that were previously eradicated reappear – and this happens at a time when little or no medical care is available for the epidemic’s victims.

But it is not just wars that impose barriers to routine vaccination. The lack of transport infrastructure and electricity supply can make it very difficult to carry out vaccination campaigns in remote locations.

Vaccines often need to be kept at low temperatures, which can be a challenge in many of the locations where we works.

But still, in 2018 alone, our teams managed to vaccinate more than 1.4 million people against measles in response to outbreaks of the disease.

There is another huge obstacle to people getting vaccinated: high prices.

Pneumonia is the disease that kills most children in the world and yet it can be easily prevented with the pneumococcal pneumonia vaccine.

For years, this vaccine was inaccessible to millions of children who needed it.

In 2016, MSF’s Access Campaign, delivered a petition with more than 400,000 signatures asking the two pharmaceutical companies that produce the vaccine to lower the price to US$9 per child for developing countries and humanitarian organisations.

When a third competing company started to produce the vaccine in December 2019, the potential was there for the price to drop even further, allowing more doses to be purchased.

This is just one example of how a commercial decision can lead to thousands of lives being either lost or saved.

A safe and effective vaccine for measles has existed since the 1960s but outbreaks still occur due to ineffective or insufficient immunisation programmes. © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

A safe and effective vaccine for measles has existed since the 1960s but outbreaks still occur due to ineffective or insufficient immunisation programmes. © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

A safe and effective vaccine for measles has existed since the 1960s but outbreaks still occur due to ineffective or insufficient immunisation programmes. © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

The world is now feeling the impact of a disease that threatens everyone and has forced us to take unprecedented measures.

What will we do if a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed but comes on the market at prices so high that most people are prevented from benefiting from it?

How many elderly people, people with pre-existing medical conditions and health workers will lose their lives so that profits are not lost?

How many of us will pay with our own lives or the lives of our loved ones?

The new coronavirus pandemic has already marked indelibly our personal history and world history.

But an affordable vaccine could bring about an ending with fewer losses.

MSF UK | Lower Ground Floor, Chancery Exchange, 10 Furnival Street, London, EC4A 1AB | +44 (0)207 404 6600 | English Charity Reg. No. 1026588 ·Contact us·Privacy, cookies and our promise to you·Modern slavery statement·Jobs in the office·Gift Aid explained