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Investing in Global Vaccine Equity Acknowledges Our Shared Fate

Vaccines are among modern medicine’s greatest innovations, allowing billions of people to lead healthy lives. But stopping outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease – and not only COVID-19 – depends on achieving critical mass with immunization campaigns.

NAIROBI – The extraordinary global effort to develop safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines in record time highlights the power of vaccines to bring us closer to our loved ones and to a more prosperous, equitable world in which everyone has the chance to achieve their full potential. Vaccines are among modern medicine’s greatest innovations, allowing billions of people to lead healthy lives. But stopping outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease – and not only COVID-19 – depends on achieving critical mass with immunization campaigns.

Consider polio. The shuttering of classrooms to protect children from COVID-19 outbreaks might seem unprecedented, but a 1937 polio outbreak in the United States inspired school-by-radio programs – an early innovation in remote learning. In those days, polio was thought to afflict only industrialized countries, until a major outbreak in South Africa in 1948 led to the establishment of the first African foundation for polio research and catalyzed greater awareness of the disease’s global burden. In the 1950s, polio paralyzed an average of 600,000 people each year.

Fortunately, scientists developed the first polio vaccines later that decade. And since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, vaccines have reduced the global incidence of wild polio cases by more than 99%, from hundreds of thousands annually to a handful of endemic cases in just two remaining countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2020, Africa was certified as being free of wild polio, giving the continent a much-needed glimmer of hope amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Strong vaccine coverage has made it possible to believe that polio could become the second disease – after smallpox – to be eradicated through vaccination.

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