Mind the Gap! The Global Gap in Vaccine Coverage is a Gender Issue
“Vaccines [are] a way to eliminate social injustice and inequality. We aren’t helping others but each other… This is a global community: it takes a village to vaccinate a child and it takes a world to eradicate a disease.”
– Jalaa Abdelwahab, UNICEF
April is an important month for child health and vaccines. With World Health Day on April 7th and World Immunization Week April 24-30th, it is a month to take stock on the status of vaccine coverage globally. What have been the achievements? What are the gaps? What are our key opportunities ahead to ensure that all children, regardless of where they were born or their gender, have full access to life saving vaccines
Immunization is lifesaving. It helps individuals live longer, healthier and more productive lives. As well, through herd immunity, vaccines protect the lives of those that are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated. Vaccines are one of the most cost effective public health interventions out there, with benefits that far outweigh the costs. They often provide lifelong protection from disease, boost overall immunity and protection from other illnesses and ailments (such as malnutrition brought about by diarrhea and the consequent malabsorption of nutrients) and help cut down on the overuse of antibiotics, curbing the worldwide spread of microbes resistant to infection-fighting medicines. This translates to health system savings and the realization of greater lifelong productivity and wage earnings for individuals, as vaccines are key to cognitive development, attainment of education, and ability to work.
Two to three million deaths were averted in 2017 because of vaccines, and that number of averted deaths continues to increase. An estimated 116.5 million infants received three doses of DTP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis — used as an indicator of global vaccine coverage) and coverage rates of DTP grew in India, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Over 400 million children were immunized for polio resulting in the fewest reported cases of wild poliovirus in history with 22 cases. The paralyzing disease is 99.99% eradicated and 80% of the world’s population live in regions certified as polio-free.
Despite these achievements, global vaccine coverage is still 86% (the goal is 90%) and current progress is too slow to neither reach the World Health Assembly targets by 2020 nor realize the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In addition, only 5% of the world’s children are receiving the 11 WHO recommended vaccines. Approximately 19.4 million infants are not being reached with routine immunization and 60% of these infants live in just 10 countries. These gaps are primarily attributed to weak health and vaccine systems, lack of country commitment, and inequity.
The Big Issue: When 19.4 million infants remain un-vaccinated or under vaccinated, women and girls are disproportionately impacted.
Inequities are socially, culturally, economically and politically constructed barriers that restrict certain groups from full access, benefit and participation in society spurring inequality. One such inequity is gender-based discrimination.
Throughout the world, women and girls face discrimination, socio-economic marginalization, and considerable barriers to accessing health care, nutrition, and education. These barriers hinder their ability to work and advance in the job market, and in gaining greater decision making and leadership roles in the decisions that impact themselves, their families and their communities.
Despite the fact that girls receive half the share of vaccinations, when they do not receive their vaccines the negative health impacts are greater, can impede her access to education and hinder her ability to break out of cycles of poverty.
Gender discrimination has also meant that researchers are only now beginning to understand the unique experiences and impacts of barriers to health, poor health coverage and weak health systems on girls and women. The WHO now knows that women and girls are at greater risk of illness and infection, experience poorer health and well-being over their life span and are at greater risk of preventable (and early) death. Women are more burdened by ill children and family members.
Mothers are also disproportionately affected, who as primary caretakers face the unequal cost and time burden of caring for ill children. This means lost wages, lost productivity, job insecurity and medical costs, leaving less time for the pursuit of opportunities and decision-making roles.
National Volunteer Week (April 15-21) is also this month and as a grassroots organization we are grateful to all of our volunteers who are incredible engaged advocates for a world without poverty. Thank you!
On February 27th, 2018, Budget 2018 reiterated its commitment to the empowerment and equality of women and girls through the Feminist International Assistance Policy (FIAP). Recognizing that when we “[eliminate] the barriers to equality and [help] create better opportunities, women and girls can be powerful agents of change and improve their own lives and those of their families, communities and countries.”
On this World Health Day on April 7th and throughout World Immunization Week April 24th– 30th, let’s remind the Canadian government that improving vaccine coverage and ensuring that 19.4 million more children are reached with vaccines is at the core of the empowerment and equality of women and girls. To ensure that they, their family and the greater community, have the best chance at a full, healthy and productive life — to break cycles of poverty, ill health, malnutrition, and ideally, inequality.