By Professor Julie Leask, University of Sydney
COVID-19 shows the urgency of global public health investments. The virus has no vaccine yet, but a host of other infections do. Measles; polio, whooping cough; forms of meningitis and pneumonia; and other diseases have vaccines that substantially reduce their risks.
The Australian government has an opportunity to prevent the outbreaks of the future – by pledging $300 million towards vaccines for the world’s poorest countries over the next five years through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
It is hard to imagine a better investment case than vaccination: for every US$1 invested in vaccines in countries supported by Gavi, $54 are retuned in savings from illness and deaths averted.
In April, 17 Australian health and medical bodies, not for profits, and research institutions called on the government to step-up at a pledging conference in June hosted by Gavi. Australia has contributed consistently since our first pledge under the Howard Government in 2006 and this has assisted in the vaccination of 760 million children, preventing 13 million deaths.
This contribution to child survival and better development makes for stronger economies: since 2000, Gavi-supported vaccines have helped generate more than $US150 billion in economic benefits for participating countries. By contributing in this way Australia also increases its health security. Most of our measles outbreaks originate from a traveller or returning traveller bringing measles back from endemic countries. Helping such countries boost their vaccination programs will reduce that risk, made higher by a likely reduction in our immunisation rates from the pandemic-related disruption.
Australia can also act on its increased commitment to the Pacific region. Samoa’s measles outbreak late last year killed 83 people of whom 72 were young children. A Gavi pledge will support an expansion of technical assistance and procurement support to middle-income countries as well as ongoing work in the lowest-income Pacific nations, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
If a COVID-19 vaccine can be found, Gavi have also agreed to stockpile it and make it available to the 73 countries in which it works – it previously did this with the Ebola vaccine. This is important since no country will be COVID-free until all countries are – for the sake of global health security, the vaccine needs to go out widely, not just to those who can afford it, or who can jump to the front of the queue.
Supporting global vaccination also strengthens health systems through a ‘trickle-up’ effect because they establish mechanisms for reaching all children, reliable supply chains, improve quality of services, and education of health workers. Many of those deployed to fight COVID-19 at the public health front line are deployed from vaccination programs due to their expertise.
A strong pledge is an investment in securing our country, the region and beyond. It’s also an act of grace – of gratuitous giving that Australians demonstrated through the bushfire response.
After a regretful summer, the Prime Minister acted promptly on the coronavirus threat. He should make a strong commitment to global vaccination, keeping our world safer place. It’s prudent, it’s neighbourly and it’s right.
Julie Leask is professor at the University of Sydney, a member of the Australian Regional Immunisation Alliance, and overall winner of the 2019 Australian Financial Review 100 Women of Influence. She is an advisor to the World Health Organization and in January, worked in Samoa in support of measles outbreak recovery.
UN Photo/JC McIlwaine, 05 December 2014, Juba, South Sudan, Photo # 615391