Stephen Crabb MP: The profound impact of vaccine investment on developing countries economic success
Despite the growing evidence of the benefits of investing in vaccinations, over 1.5 million children under the age of five die from vaccine preventable diseases every year. This is a fight that is far from won, says Stephen Crabb MP.
Far too often the debate about international aid seems stuck in a loop with questions about the headline expenditure of 0.7% GDP coming around again and again. The discussion in the popular press is overwhelmingly dominated by this controversy and the suggestion that aid money could be better spent on domestic priorities.
While those of us who support Britain's role as a leader in effective overseas development should never tire in re-stating the basic case for aid, we should focus also on specific examples where UK aid has helped achieve profound economic and social improvements in some of the poorest countries on earth. One area of British leadership and expertise that has received far too little attention is the funding, development and distribution of vaccines against killer diseases.
It was a British doctor, Edward Jenner, who pioneered the first vaccine at the end of the eighteenth century when he used pus drawn from a cowpox boil to inoculate a boy against the killer smallpox. More than two hundred years on, British science and medical research still lead the world when it comes to improving the health of people living in extreme poverty.
The eradication of smallpox was one of the great achievements of the twentieth century. More recently, we have seen polio reduced by 99% and full eradication is within reach. But the poorest countries today are still ravaged by diseases like TB, HIV/Aids, Malaria and Ebola. Killer diseases undermine economic growth, weaken the labour force and place enormous burdens on fragile health systems.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa saw at least $2.8 billion in lost growth and killed more than 11,000 people in the three countries worst affected by the outbreak. It had a severe developmental impact in these countries, placing already weak health systems under extreme pressure and affected employment and school attendance rates.
Fighting these diseases requires intervention and funding on a scale beyond that which any individual institution can provide. Successive UK governments have identified vaccines as a key priority for our overseas aid budget and, together with other governments and private donors, we have helped to transform the landscape of immunisation in the poorest countries.
Internationally, the UK was one of the original donors to Gavi - the Vaccine Alliance which aims to create equal access to vaccines for children living in the world’s poorest countries, and today we provide 25% of its current funding. We are also a key donor to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria which is playing a key role in accelerating vaccination against tuberculosis.
During the period 2011-2016, the UK’s funding for vaccination programmes helped to immunise 44 million children. For the current period until 2020 we are committed to immunising 76 million children against killer diseases.
In recent months Britain's support for vaccine programmes has helped tackle health emergencies like the diphtheria outbreak among 150,000 Rohingya children in camps in Bangladesh and the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Recent research by Harvard University and Gavi has demonstrated that, apart from improving health outcomes, vaccinations also have a positive economic effect. Investing in vaccinations helps build strong foundations for economic success in developing countries and reduces poverty, especially among the very poorest people. Research by John Hopkins School of Public Health suggests that for direct costs of illness, such as treatment and lost productivity, the return on every pound spent on vaccines was £16. When they expand this to look at the broader economic impact of illness, they found the return was £44 for every pound spent.
Despite the growing evidence of the benefits of investing in vaccinations and the remarkable progress that has been achieved in the last twenty years, nearly 1 in 10 infants (12.9 million) did not receive any vaccinations in 2016 and over 1.5 million children under the age of five die from vaccine preventable diseases every year. This is a fight that is far from won.
Looking ahead to the future of international programmes like the Global Fund and Gavi, Ministers will need to make key decisions about ongoing UK support. It is vital that Britain plays a key role in the future replenishment conferences and, in the meantime, that it encourages other nations to step up too.
Britain’s leadership in this field flows directly from the political consensus a decade ago to expand our overseas aid budget and direct it towards some of the most difficult global challenges.
The remarkable international effort on vaccinations underlines the importance of re-forging that consensus and protecting UK aid.
Stephen Crabb is Conservative MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire
Save the Children have responded saying, '‘UK aid saves lives every day; one of the areas this is most evident is DFID’s funding of vaccines which is being discussed today. We strongly support Mr Crabb’s assertion that the UK Government should continue to support Gavi so that lifesaving vaccines can be distributed to the world’s poorest and most marginalised children.’
WaterAid have responded saying, 'WaterAid has found that vaccinations are increasingly successful when delivered in a community at the same time as hygiene education which helps provide the first line of defence against disease'. Read their full response here.