Opening Speech for the joint launch of the 15th Vaccination Week in the Americas (Guyana and Suriname) 2017, by the Honorable Minister within the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Karen Cummings

Ladies and gentlemen, a very good morning to you all.

It is an honor and a pleasure to be here in lovely Suriname to participate in this joint launch of the 15th Vaccination Week in the Americas. To be sharing the stage with my counterparts of Suriname is just superlative and demonstrates the good relations both countries share and enjoy with each other. On behalf of the Government of Guyana, I would like to extend warm wishes to the Honorable Minister of Health of Suriname, Mr. Patrick Pengel and the rest of the Surinamese government for their involvement in making this event a reality. To the people of Suriname, greetings from all of Guyana. This event certainly epitomizes the nature of good neighborliness and could only contribute to an even better mutual relationship between our two countries.

This year, the theme chosen to celebrate this very important week is: “Get vaccinated to celebrate a healthy tomorrow”. The relevancy and veracity of this theme cannot be overstated. Vaccination is one of the most significant and necessary requirement for every human being to be able to live a healthy life. It is considered by many leading minds that vaccination is one of the greatest achievements in modern civilization.  Further, immunization remains the single most important way parents can protect their children from serious diseases. As a consequence, the decision by parents to immunize their child or children is an extremely critical one, especially since there are no effective alternatives to immunization. Sadly, however, this view is not shared universally for a variety of reasons which leaves millions of children without immunization and at the mercy of the many infectious diseases that threaten their health, wellbeing, and ultimately their lives. Unfortunately, the decision not to immunize puts a strain on the economic resources of the country and also places others at unnecessary risk.

Globally, societies – the Americas included – still have lots of work to do in order to achieve universal vaccination coverage. We all have a public health commitment to our communities to protect each other and each other’s children by vaccinating our own family members and ensuring that the message of the importance of vaccination resonates within and among our respective jurisdictions. Parents must be informed that in order to ensure their children are healthy and protected from preventable diseases, vaccination is the best and only way to achieve this unquestionable goal.

Since the efficacy of a particular vaccine corresponds directly with the percentage of a given population that has been vaccinated, proponents of mandatory vaccination have sought to convince those with reservations that vaccination is always the right choice. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has attempted to allay possible reservations some parents may have with vaccinations by rebutting some of the commonly held fears about vaccines. The CDC has pointed out, for example, that most adverse effects from vaccines are “minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever.” The corollary is lifelong health. We cannot best such an outcome.

The Importance of Immunization

According to the CDC, there are five main reasons for placing emphasis on vaccination. They are as follows:

  1. Immunizations can save your child’s life;
  2. Vaccination is very safe and effective;
  3. Immunization protects others you care about;
  4. Immunizations can save your family time and money; and
  5. Immunization protects future generations.

Vaccines promote health: Unlike many other public health interventions, vaccines can help healthy people remain healthy, and at the same time remove a major obstacle to human development.

Vaccines also have an expansive reach because they protect individuals, communities, and entire populations.

Vaccines have a rapid impact: The impact most vaccines have on communities and populations is almost immediate. For example, between 2000 and 2008, vaccination significantly reduced global deaths from measles.

Vaccines save lives: Recently published statistics by the World Health Organization indicates that immunization averts 2 to 3 million deaths annually. However, should global vaccination coverage improve, an additional 1.5 million deaths can be avoided. Today, an estimated 18.7 million infants – nearly 1 in 5 children – worldwide are still missing routine immunizations for preventable diseases, such as diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus. These statistics point to the need for us to redouble our collaborative and cooperative efforts to ensure that everyone in our respective jurisdictions is vaccinated.

Because there are many persons globally who do not receive immunization, the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP) was formulated and endorsed by 194 Member States (including Guyana), at the World Health Assembly in May 2012. This Plan is seen as a strategic framework to prevent millions of deaths by 2020, through more equitable access to existing vaccines for people in all communities.

It must be noted that there have been many global accomplishments of the GVAP for 2015. Because they are so important universally, some of these accomplishments must be highlighted:

  1. The elimination of maternal and neonatal tetanus in India;
  2. The fact that Africa is becoming closer to being certified as polio-free;
  3. The elimination of rubella in the Americas; and
  4. The potential for the introduction of dengue, Ebola and Malaria vaccines.

Even amongst these achievements, there still remains a wide gap globally that can be closed once strategic measures are implemented to address five keys areas in the health system. The keys areas are (1) quality data and its use, (2) community involvement, (3) better access to immunization services for marginalized and displaced populations, (4) strong health systems, and (5) access to vaccines in all places at all times.

Given the significant benefits to be derived from the implementation of effective vaccination programmes, the Ministry of Public Health intends to have universal access to immunization in Guyana by 2020!

Immunization: The Guyana Situation

Guyana is one of the countries that has benefitted from the GAVI initiative, in procuring vaccines for our children. Currently, 17 vaccines exist in our vaccination schedule to which every child can have equal access. It is important to note that there is no financial cost attached to any citizen desirous of acquiring any one of the available vaccines.

The most recent vaccine added to the above list of 17 is the Human Papilloma Virus, which has had its challenges to implement. But we are working assiduously to remove those barriers to the successful implementation of this very important and necessary vaccine.

A cursory glance at some indicators over the past few years will highlight Guyana’s continuous move towards achieving universal implementation of its vaccination programme. Guyana has made and continues to make significant progress in the fight against many infectious diseases. However, until we can ensure that every child, every person is receiving his or her required vaccines, there remains much more work to be done.

Permit me share some valuable statistics with you:

In the 1980s, the percentage coverage for BCG used to be at 68%. Today, I am pleased to point out that in 2016, that statistic has increased to 98%.

In 1995 polio coverage was at 87%. In 2016, it is almost eradicated. I can assure you that presents cause for celebration given the debilitating and devastating effects of polio.

For measles coverage, we have increased from 67% in the 1995 to 100 % in 2016.

DTP 3 coverage similarly increased from 86% in 1995, to 98% in 2016.

The treatment of other infectious diseases likewise mirrors this positive increase in coverage.

It is very reassuring to note that Guyana is leading its regional partners in vaccination coverage, despite the many challenges faced regarding cost, transportation, and staffing.

The way forward for Guyana’s Immunization programme

Guyana has established a Multi-Year Plan 2017 – 2021 for achieving improved immunization coverage across the country. Key to achieving universal vaccination coverage is the availability and optimal utilization of adequate human resources. In this regard, strategic efforts are being undertaken to strengthen our human resources through continuous capacity building initiatives that will ensure our immunization staff are properly trained and well-skilled to effectively execute their duties. Also, critical to achieving universal vaccination coverage is the unhindered access to remote areas of the country. Through better inter-sectoral coordination, enhanced transportation and logistical systems, supported by a robust public communication strategy, more persons will have access to vaccines and be sensitized to the importance and benefits of immunization.

Other future initiatives will be a comprehensive assessment of the status of our current cold chain equipment countrywide. Increasing and improving our cold chain capacity is a priority and will remain as such as Guyana aims to achieve universal vaccination coverage in the near future. Careful attention will be placed particularly on our hinterland regions where most of the challenges of cold storage exists. Enhancing our monitoring and evaluation capabilities relative to the earlier identification of dropouts and the need for follow up visits is a priority for our health care professionals. This strategic plan will trigger more home visits and other outreach activities inclusive of social mobilization initiatives utilizing appropriate public communication channels.

Conclusion

Reaching more people and strengthening immunization between and among both our countries must be the commitment we make moving forward. Collectively we must engage in coordinated approaches to push the message that it is the right of all to be protected from vaccine-preventable diseases, and at the same time have access to quality public health services. In the past decade, notable progress has been made in both countries and the world over. Far more people are being immunized and there has been marked reduction in mortality rates from preventable diseases among our people.   However, we must continue to build on the gains made and work tirelessly to arrest the shortfall of vaccination that still exist in certain areas.

This joint launch of the 15th Vaccination Week of the Americas must galvanize our respective public health leaders to address our respective challenges utilizing innovative and effective solutions in which advocacy, education, and communication are central. Let us continue to raise the profile of Vaccination Week and use this week as an opportunity to underscore the proven life-saving power of vaccines, and to encourage vaccination of our children, adolescents, and adults against deadly diseases. Fifteen years is a quite long time since we have established this vital week in our respective health calendars. It means that we have had an impact on a generation of people. We must evaluate this period and document the positive lessons that we have learnt. Going forward, let us continue to work on our mutually beneficial relationship while expanding our network.

Together, we can achieve significant gains while acting as a role models for other countries, especially through our very fitting theme of “Get vaccinated to celebrate a healthy tomorrow”.

Best wishes and I thank you.

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