Eighth Meeting of the SEA Region Immunization Technical Advisory Group (SEAR-ITAG)

13-16 June 2017, New Delhi, India

Members of the South-East Asia Region Immunization Technical Advisory Group (ITAG), Chairpersons of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Groups, SAGE members representing the Region, representatives from countries of the South-East Asia Region, colleagues from WHO headquarters, representatives of UNICEF, US CDC, GAVI and other partner agencies, ladies and gentlemen,

At the outset I would like to congratulate the entire immunization fraternity of the South-East Asia Region. In the past three years you have achieved remarkable feats.

In March 2014 our Region was certified polio-free. This historic milestone was made possible by your dedicated efforts over the course of many years.

In April 2016 our Region made the switch from trivalent to bivalent OPV. Your diligence and efficiency made us the first region in the world to do so.

In May 2015 our Region became the second among all regions to be validated as having eliminated maternal and neonatal tetanus. This stunning achievement was enabled by your commitment to leaving no one behind.

And in April 2017 two countries – Bhutan and Maldives – were validated for eliminating endemic measles. Given your drive and success I am sure they will be the first of many to eliminate the life-threatening disease.

Distinguished participants,

These achievements are an immense source of pride. They are testimony to the contributions of each of you here, as well as the millions of health workers and volunteers that have supported immunization programmes.

They are also part of a wider success story.

As you know, vaccination is among the most efficient and cost-effective health interventions ever devised. It has enabled the eradication of small pox and lowered the global incidence of polio by more than 99%. We are now close to global eradication. It has decreased neonatal tetanus by 94% and achieved dramatic reductions in illness, disability and death from diseases that have long plagued humanity, including diphtheria, pertussis, hepatitis B and rotavirus. Indeed, it has transformed the health and wellbeing of whole communities in our Region and across the world, making healthier, happier and more prosperous lives possible.

Nevertheless, the risk from vaccine-preventable diseases is ever-present. The re-emergence of diseases once thought vanquished, particularly in high-income countries, demonstrates the need for eternal vigilance and action. Across our Region the health and wellbeing of millions of children depends on us not only sustaining, but also intensifying immunization efforts. Complacency is not an option.

We must renew our focus on closing immunization gaps. We must capitalize on lessons learnt from major public health victories, especially the polio eradication programme. We must reach the unreached and under-served, including children living in remote areas and in deprived urban settings. And we must ensure equitable access to the benefits immunization brings.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today we are gathered to make this happen. We are here to affirm the promise of Sustainable Development Goal 3 – to “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”. We are also striving to attain a “South-East Asia Region free of vaccine-preventable diseases, where all countries provide equitable access to high-quality, safe, affordable vaccines and immunization services throughout the life course,” as per SDG targets 3.2 and 3.b.

In pursuing these targets and objectives I want to emphasize five action points that are critically important, and which will strengthen immunization systems across the Region.

The first is maximizing the reach of immunization programmes. As a matter of routine, traditional vaccines, as well as new and under-utilized vaccines that are safe, efficient and affordable, should be deployed as widely as possible. No child should be left behind, and no opportunity missed to confer immunization’s life-saving benefits. Vaccination is a right, and one that carries positive obligations that must be fulfilled.

Second is enhancing capacity to manage immunization programmes. Ensuring that technical advisory committees in all countries are functional is a key imperative. So too is ensuring appropriate policy frameworks are in place and facilitating operations. Where inadequate capacity exists it must be rapidly attained, allowing programme managers to act with poise and efficiency, and to do so in synergy with other preventive health interventions.

Third is mobilizing individuals and communities at the grassroots. By creating positive immunization experiences and highlighting the benefits vaccines bring, grassroots demand can be stimulated. The resurgence of measles in other parts of the world indicates the need to increase awareness and overcome vaccine hesitancy in a more coherent manner. Effective communication strategies are vital to this effort, and must be seen as integral to success.

Fourth is maintaining and strengthening partnerships. Partnerships between service providers and the community, partnerships between different technical programmes, and partnerships between national governments and the global community at large are crucial to continued progress. WHO is, as always, committed to leveraging our collective strengths to advance public health Region-wide.

And fifth is monitoring our progress. Across the Region we must expand and strengthen disease surveillance so it can better inform programmatic decision-making. At the same time, immunization information systems should be linked to national health information databases, while a periodic joint program of review should be undertaken to guide future actions.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As you know, the South-East Asia Region is determined to eliminate measles and control rubella by 2020. Achieving this goal is one of eight regional priorities. Though measles elimination is possible, it requires high-level resolve and the full commitment of EPI programmes in each of our countries. It also demands unwavering support from national and international partners and immunization technical advisory groups.

As I said earlier, your recent achievements provide a solid foundation for the pursuit of measles elimination and rubella control. In each of the Region’s countries we have well-performing immunization and surveillance systems, as well as staff that are drilled in a range of best practices. For the most part, whether we succeed or not hinges on the commitment, fortitude and resolve that we can mobilize.

As I know you appreciate, every child in our Region deserves the best we have to offer. Indeed, we all agree that every family, no matter where they live, has a right to immunization and health services. I am also sure we agree that the persistence of measles is a tragic and unnecessary reality, and that so too is the unacceptable incidence of rubella across our Region. Indeed, there can be no question of our commitment; there can be no doubt of our resolve.

I am certain this group will deliberate with clarity and passion on the many important and pressing issues on this meeting’s agenda. I am confident the rich experience provided by national ITAG members, along with our very capable national EPI colleagues and country office staff from WHO and UNICEF, will facilitate a fruitful exchange of experience, views and recommendations.

Through our collective effort we have the power to fortify and expand routine immunization across the Region. We have the power to prevent, control and eliminate vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles.

I wish you a productive meeting and a very pleasant stay in New Delhi.

Thank you.