By Melanie Robinson
When my daughter was six weeks old, she was exposed to measles.
I was in the UK at the time, where coverage rates for routine childhood vaccinations like measles and polio are high. Still, not everyone follows Public Health England advice to get their child immunised against these debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases.
Too young for her first vaccination, my child was exposed to measles through another child whose parents had decided not to get their child immunised.
My fear was compounded by the memory of a school friend. She caught measles aged one – not in the UK, I should add. That eventually led to encephalitis at the age of 14: the swelling of the brain, a terrible potential complication of this disease. As teenagers, my friends and I watched this amazing young woman slowly deteriorate in front of us.
She died at the age of 19.
I will never forget what she and her family went through.
Thankfully my daughter did not contract measles: doctors gave her immunoglobulin. Immunoglobulin can provide short-term, immediate protection against measles.
It’s a substance made from the blood plasma of humans who’ve already produced antibodies to the disease.
But immunoglobulin is only a last resort since it has its own risks and isn’t routinely available in many countries for measles prophylaxis. That means that parents rightly have to rely on mass immunisation programmes to protect their children, and other people’s children, against measles and other diseases like polio and typhoid.
I’ve visited mass immunisation programmes in several countries during my career: one of the last I saw was in Senegal on a trip with World Bank board members.
As a mother, I too winced at the momentary pain of the children vaccinated. But I was doubly in awe of the commitment I saw in the health workers doing the vaccinating. They knew how much this matters.
No parent anywhere in the world should have to worry about their child contracting an entirely avoidable disease.
But history and recent experience tells us that during natural disasters, conflict or public health crises, mass immunisation programmes can be threatened and vaccination coverage go down.
Just last year, measles broke out in the Democratic Republic of Congo as that country battled Ebola.
That’s why the UK is committed to ensuring that mass immunisation programmes can continue at this time, protecting vulnerable children from diseases like measles and polio. By helping stop further disease outbreaks, we can protect public health systems so they can cope with rising Covid-19 cases. In Zimbabwe, we are working through Unicef to strengthen the delivery of immunisation programmes — providing strategic planning, strengthening surveillance systems so that the country can get ahead of potential outbreaks and making sure vaccines and vital health messages reach communities.
(This is, I should say, just one part of a wider package of Covid-19 support already being delivered through UN partners to the people of Zimbabwe — providing humanitarian food and cash assistance, supporting water and sanitation provision, helping detect Covid-19 cases, boosting local health systems and protecting communities)
Back to vaccines. As the largest supporter of the Global Vaccines Alliance (Gavi), the UK last month announced a funding pledge equivalent to $403,6 million per year for five years to help fund immunisation of 75 million children globally. The UK is hosting virtually the Gavi Global Vaccines Summit on June 4, aiming to raise a further $8 billion for Gavi’s important work.
We’re also leading global efforts to find a vaccine for Covid-19 — a vaccine that will be for global distribution. Last week UK ministers pledged additional funding for two vaccine development projects in the UK, one at Oxford University, which I’m particularly proud to see, as my undergraduate university, another at Imperial College London. Just-announced government funding is helping speed up the construction of a not-for-profit vaccine research lab in Oxfordshire.
Crucially, we’re upping our support to Africa to save lives. This week International Development secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan announced that the UK is investing $23,4 million in the African Union to help it tackle coronavirus. This makes the UK the biggest donor to the African Union’s Coronavirus Response Fund.
We’re proud to be standing side by side with international partners like the AU in the fight to save lives. In that fight, it’s important not to miss the individual stories of frontline workers tackling coronavirus with energy, courage and resilience.
In Zimbabwe, I’ve been inspired by the story of John Masimba, a truck driver with HALO Trust, the disarmament charity that operates here with UK funding. When Covid-19 hit, HALO had to transition fast.
In recent weeks, its staff have been providing logistical support to the Ministry of Health as part of the Covid-19 National Taskforce Response. Masimba and his team have driven 10 000km, delivering supplies and ferrying healthworkers between hospitals, villages and clinics. He told us: “I had to offer my support to save lives.”
He is a true hero.
l Melanie Robinson is the UK’s ambassador to Zimbabwe