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Everyone deserves a shot at life — not just those in wealthy countries

Everyone deserves a shot at life — not just those in wealthy countries
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Finally, the United States is stepping up and delivering on its promise to help other countries get a handle on COVID-19 with vaccines. President Joe BidenJoe BidenJapan to possibly ease COVID-19 restrictions before Olympics 14 Republicans vote against making Juneteenth a federal holiday China supplies millions of vaccine doses to developing nations in Asia MORE’s announcement that the United States will share an additional 20 million doses of U.S.-approved vaccines reaffirms a simple truth that should never have been up for debate: Ending this pandemic anywhere requires ending it everywhere.  

After a combined 10 plus years fighting for global vaccine access, we are both acutely aware of how fast an outbreak can spread among unvaccinated populations. 

More than a year later, we have a suite of vaccines at our disposal. But we continue to underestimate this virus and seek false security within our own country’s borders. As Biden said when making the announcement, “America will never fully be safe until the pandemic that is raging globally is under control.”

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Given the latest estimates, control remains far off. Of all doses administered worldwide 84 percent have been in wealthy countries, while just 0.3 percent have been in low-income countries.  

While we clearly have a ways to go before we achieve vaccine equity, the global vaccine access initiative known as COVAX is making some progress possible. Just a few short months after the first delivery touched down in Ghana, more than 69 million doses have been delivered to over 125 lower-income countries across the world. 

The political will and solidarity powering this global effort to distribute an ambitious goal of at least 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021 is beyond anything we have seen before. COVAX is a powerful example of collective problem solving and represents an exciting new model for those of us working in vaccine advocacy. 

Imagine the progress that could be unlocked if the same level of commitment could be harnessed and applied to eradicating other vaccine-preventable diseases. 

While the world has been laser-focused on COVID-19, diseases like measles and polio have been making a comeback, eroding decades of global health progress.  

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Routine immunizations — the kind that most Americans take for granted as infants or young children — have been severely disrupted in low-income countries where access was already scarce. Even before the pandemic, progress was waning. But a fragile situation has been made worse by the strain of shutdowns and overburdened health systems. 

In a recent survey conducted by the World Health Organization, 90 percent of countries reported disruptions to essential health services. And new data confirms that with routine immunization campaigns on hold in 50 countries, about 228 million people are at risk of contracting diseases like measles, polio and yellow fever. The majority of countries impacted are in Africa, further highlighting and exacerbating health inequities among already vulnerable populations. Setbacks against measles are particularly worrisome as it’s highly contagious and known to cause serious outbreaks in unvaccinated communities.   

We cannot defeat one virus only to see others surge.  

It’s unacceptable that any child should die from a disease like measles — as hundreds of thousands do every year — when we have safe, proven and cost-effective vaccines readily available. It will take commitment and coordination on the scale of COVAX to protect progress and ensure every child can access the vaccines they need.

Just like the multilateral efforts to fight COVID-19, expanding access to routine childhood vaccines will require political will and support at all levels of government. But no amount of global summits or bilateral meetings will have the same influence as an engaged constituency making the case for robust investment in global immunization programs directly to their elected representatives.  

Time and again, we have seen what passionate advocates can do. We have even seen a previous administration set on zeroing out funding for UNICEF’s global immunization programs, changing course and ultimately increasing funding for these programs. Why? Because Americans spoke up. People have power — especially when they speak together with one voice.   

To finally wipe some of the oldest, deadliest diseases off of the planet for good, we need people to come together and tell their elected representatives that these investments matter to them.  

They matter because no child in 2021 should suffer from polio or die from measles. And they matter — because as this year has made painfully clear — an outbreak anywhere can become a health threat everywhere in the blink of an eye.   

This year of immense challenge can, and must, also give rise to new opportunities — opportunities to harness global solidarity and cooperation to bring vaccines to the world's most remote and vulnerable communities, to build up health systems to make them stronger and more accessible, and to close the last gaps in routine immunization access once and for all. 

But it will take committed citizens speaking up and telling their members of Congress that every child — no matter where they live — deserves a shot at a happy and healthy life. 

Martha Rebour is the executive director of Shot@Life, a grassroots advocacy campaign of the United Nations Foundation that champions global childhood immunization. Purvi Parikh, MD is an immunologist, co-investigator in the COVID-19 vaccine trials, and a Shot@Life champion.