Addis Ababa. Tanzania’s former president Jakaya Kikwete was at pains last week to explain why it matters for Tanzania and other African countries to invest heavily in ensuring that every African child is vaccinated against preventable diseases.
Briefing journalists on the sidelines of a Ministerial Conference on Immunization (MCIA) in Addis Ababa Ethiopia, Mr Kikwete used the platform as Global Ambassador for Immunization to address some of the gaps that existed in financing for vaccines in Africa.
However, as a leader whose government ended its tenure without fulfilling the Abuja benchmarks for healthcare spending, it was not easy for the former head of state to defend his position on the ambitious investment.
Tanzania—, of which he was a leader for ten years, has only managed to apportion 11.5 percent of the total national budget to healthcare in the current budget. The latest amount has risen from about 8.5 percent over the past five years.
This is significantly less than what was promised, as per the Abuja Declaration, where African leaders agreed to commit 15 percent of the total national budget. Most other countries have also not fulfilled this commitment due to budget constraints.
Under such circumstances, Mr Kikwete could not do away with the curiosity of journalists who seemed to be particularly concerned about how and why African countries could invest heavily in the vaccines, amid financial crises.
The journalists’ concern was perhaps ignited by the recently published data by the WHO, which shows that less than 20 countries in Africa can currently fund more than 50 percent of their own immunization expenditure.
Over the years, the report suggested, most of the African countries were relying on the generosity of foreign donors to strengthen their immunization programs and for introducing new vaccines.
Tanzania was no exception. The country still relies on the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (Gavi) for funding new vaccines.
According to the Immunization Program’s Manager, Dr Dafroza Lymo, five out of the total package of the 11 vaccines under the country’s Immunization Program, are funded by the Gavi.
But, she says,“The rest of the vaccines [six of them] are fully funded by the government through domestic revenues.”
Mr Kikwete warned, however, that incumbent African leaders should not feel complacent after the little successes that have been attained in some of their countries—including Tanzania—where remarkable progress in immunization is palpable.
“Much as progress has been encouraging in some respects,” he said, “It is not enough.”
Earlier, as he read his keynote address to African health ministers and vaccines stakeholders, he called for soul-searching among the leaders, citing reports which painted a bleak future in the vaccines funding plans.
He said, “Action Plan Reports on the implementation of the universal access to immunization by 2020 agenda, as envisaged by the Global Vaccine Action Plan, is largely off track,” as he posed pertinent questions.
“In this regard, it is fair to ask ourselves the following questions: Are we doing enough? Is this all that we can do? Will another Declaration change the situation for the better? What difference can this Conference make? How can we make a difference coming out of this room today?”
But, at one point during his address, he had to refer to his background knowledge in economics to show why African leaders and their people stood to gain—rather than to lose—if they decided to spend a portion of their income on investing in vaccines.
“For us [as leaders and our people], investing our incomes on vaccines is an issue of opportunity cost,” he noted and added, “We are already informed that when a country invests one dollar in vaccines, it saves 16 dollars in return.”
“The money that a country gains in return from this investment can be directed to other pressing issues. But also, when children grow into healthy adults, they become more productive,” he said.
He urged sitting African Heads of State to exercise strong political will and take full ownership of the immunization programs, saying that it was the surest way they could help save the lives of children lost due to preventable diseases.
He gave an example of his country, where he tried to take full responsibility of the programmes and reaped benefits. “During my Presidency I made immunization one of my top agenda items. By virtue of doing that, it became every political leader’s agenda and not only that of the Minister of Health.”
“Because of this paradigm shift, he continued, “We were able to ensure that Tanzanian children were receiving vaccines both potent and effective.’’
In his observation, “This is no small achievement at all. I feel privileged and proud to have been a part of that important development.”
Mr Kikwete will continue serving as the immunization’s global ambassador for another two years. This is after he was requested by the Gavi Deputy CEO Anuradha Gupta to take over the role.