Immunisation has been instrumental in controlling many infectious diseases that were once prevalent across the globe, such as polio, measles, and meningitis. It has played a huge role in improving individual and community health that resulted in long-term benefits to economies around the world. Just in the last 50 years, vaccines have contributed to substantial reductions in mortality and morbidity globally, saving millions of lives.
In recent years, the pandemic has launched immunisation into the international dialogue, making it top of mind for most of the world. At the same time, the pandemic crisis also caused disruptions to health systems globally, with approximately 25 million children around the world missing out on primary or essential vaccinations in 2021, according to the World Health Organization. This is 5.9 million more children than in 2019, and the highest it has ever been since 2009. This is a great challenge, especially for newborns who have immature and naïve immune systems and are particularly vulnerable to infections, making their lack of vaccinations a serious complication to their health.
While immunisation has made a significant impact on public health and the economy, there is still much work to be done to make sure that everyone has access to them, especially children. On top of resilient supply chains and accessible points of care, new technological breakthroughs are key to ensuring vaccine accessibility and coverage. The medical community and the healthcare industry identified this unmet medical need to protect newly born infants from severe infections, which can cause mortality in the newborn in the first few weeks and months of their lives. Together, maternal immunisation was found to be the optimum channel to protect babies who are less than six months from severe illness caused by a number of infectious diseases.
Maternal immunisation as an innovative protective measure
One of the breakthroughs the medical community has recently agreed to is maternal immunisation, which allows protection for newborn babies. Maternal vaccination helps to protect both the mother and her unborn baby from certain infectious diseases. These vaccines work by stimulating the mother's immune system to produce antibodies against specific diseases, which can then be passed to the baby. Providing passive immunity can help protect babies from serious infections during the vulnerable first few months of life when they are most susceptible to diseases.
To contextualise its positive impact, women and infants in the region face a range of health challenges, including high rates of maternal and infant mortality, infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, and limited access to healthcare services. Millions of children in the region die from diseases that can be prevented through immunisation. Maternal vaccination can help to address some of these challenges by protecting mothers and babies against infectious diseases that can cause serious illness or death, reducing the risk of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, and improving overall health outcomes.
It’s also important to note that the mothers of newborn babies need to wait before their infants can get all the right vaccinations, exposing them to illnesses during this period. While a maternal vaccine protects babies from serious illness or death starting from their earliest days. This makes it a very cost-effective public health intervention that reduces the economic burden of diseases. Vaccinating women and immunising their babies, can help prevent costly medical treatments or hospitalisations for both mothers and their infants.
Vaccine coverage in the Middle East and Africa
While maternal vaccines present many benefits, there is still much work to be done. Access to vaccination services can be a challenge in some parts of the region due to issues such as poverty, conflict, and inadequate health infrastructure. Addressing these barriers is important to ensure that all women have access to the vaccines they need to protect themselves and their infants.
Vaccine coverage in the Middle East and Africa is critical to its social and economic prosperity. By avoiding vaccine-preventable illnesses, people can be more actively involved in their communities and continue to care for their families. At the same time, vaccinations can significantly reduce hospitalisation rates and the burden on the healthcare system, maximising the availability of healthcare resources by allowing healthcare facilities and workers to focus on emergent care needs.
As such, governments and industry leaders in the region are working hard to ensure equitable access to immunisation. Programmes such as localised clinical trials, healthcare worker training programmes, and enhanced medical affairs programmes have a significant impact on vaccine coverage. The healthcare industry is working together to ensure that everyone in the region is protected from preventable diseases.
Hammam Haridy is the Vaccines & Antiviral Medical Lead MERA at Pfizer