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Let’s use data to reach everyone with vaccines, keep disease away

Like many other doctors, I love data. That is because getting quality data can help lead to smarter prevention, better diagnosis and treatment and, ultimately, improved health for patients.

Without data, it can sometimes feel like working in the dark or with one hand tied behind your back.

I rely on data to shed light on how best to solve some of the world’s greatest health challenges and keep people alive and healthy.

Using data, I can better serve people. I can make decisions with both hands, in the brightest light possible.

VACCINES
The release of global immunisation coverage data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef is, therefore, a much-anticipated day for me and my colleagues.

I watch out for this data because it shows us how many children we are reaching with life-saving vaccines on a global, regional and national level — and how far we have left to go.

And as a proud African, I always keep an eye out for how we are performing.

HEALTH SERVICES
On the face of it, the news for Africa was somewhat disappointing.

In 2016, after more than 40 years of the Expanded Programme on Immunisation, nearly two of every 10 children do not receive a first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP)-containing vaccine, an important measure of access to immunisation services.

In addition, nearly half of the countries that fall below the target coverage rate for the full course of routine immunisation (DTP3) of at least 90 per cent are African.

And, of those, 24 are even below the global average of 86 per cent.

However, the numbers also show some positive stories that make me both proud and hopeful.

ACCESS

Last year, more than 25 million infants in Africa were vaccinated with three doses of DTP-containing vaccine, more than ever before, accounting for nearly one quarter of all children receiving DTP3 globally.

These numbers show we are getting closer to saving many more lives in Africa.

Kenya, for example, has drastically increased rotavirus vaccine coverage in just two years.

When the vaccine was first introduced two years ago, coverage estimates were very low, at only 19 per cent.

Now, coverage stands at 74 per cent — a positive indication of a serious effort to curb rotavirus deaths.

VULNERABLE
With an increase in coverage by almost two thirds in two years, Kenya may soon no longer be among the 10 countries with the highest number of rotavirus deaths.

But there is an even greater success story hidden in these figures for the continent: Collection of much better and more localised data, revealing a clearer and more complete picture across Africa at last.

A clear picture is one of the best weapons we have to fight preventable disease, helping us to find the most vulnerable and ensure they are protected.

You can’t fight what you can’t define; so, this is good news.

POLIO
For the first time, WHO and Unicef received immunisation data at the subnational level for 125 of 194 member states.

We now have data for over two thirds of the world’s districts — 20,000 in total — and visibility into vaccine coverage levels among 88 million people.

In Africa, 47 countries reported data for DTP3 vaccination coverage at the district level.

But there is a long road ahead to ensure the quality of data at these local levels is sufficient to help the programme managers improve the reach of immunisation services.

Better data puts countries a step closer to protecting their populations from life-threatening vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio, measles or yellow fever.

Better data collection can completely change how we deliver vaccines.

COVERAGE
This year’s report makes it clear that, while we have done a better job in getting better data, we cannot let success lead to complacency.

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is a clear disparity between where coverage rates could and should be in Africa and the reality.

It is now up to us to put the pieces of the puzzle together and protect all Africans from preventable diseases.

Dr Ayo Ajayi is a doctor working in health and development.

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