7 big breakthroughs in global health this year

(and how vaccines got behind them)

From political support for immunisation to progress against some of the world's deadliest diseases β€” 2017 has seen serious steps forward in global health. Here are seven of our highlights from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance... 

1. A world without measles?

School children line up in Malawi's Dedza district to receive the measles-rubella vaccine β€” GAVI/Karel Prinsloo

For the first time ever, fewer than 100,0000 people died from measles in a year - putting the prospect of a world without this disease within our sights.

Widespread immunisation drives have helped to save an average of 1.3 million lives per year since 2000. But far too many children β€” 20.8 million β€” are still missing their first measles vaccine dose, warned health experts.

More than half of these unvaccinated children live in six countries: Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of the Congo. But continued cases in Europe and North America underscored the need to make sure children are immunised everywhere, to prevent an outbreak anywhere.

2. A global vote for vaccines

Nurses working at the Setthathirath hospital in Vientiane, Laos β€” GAVI/Amanda Mustard 

2017 saw a growing political commitment to get behind vaccination around the world. The start of the year saw historic pledges made by the African Union to endorse the Addis Declaration on Immunization, and by May, the second most populous country in the world - India - had taken two major steps forward to introduce rotatvirus and pneumonia vaccines to its programme.

And, with 20 Gavi-supported countries committed to fully funding their own immunisation programmes by 2020, the future for strong, sustainable vaccine programmes looks very promising. Not least in Laos β€” a country where vaccination coverage increased from 51% to 82% in the last 15 years, and health workers work hard to reach even the most remote communities.

3. No more pneumonia deaths by 2030

New pneumococcal vaccines have now been introduced across 40 countries, like here in Kenya β€” GAVI/Evelyn Hockstein

It's currently the biggest killer of children, but progress to beat pneumonia was stepped up in 2017, with a promise to end child deaths from the disease by 2030.

And the good news is 500,000 lives have already been saved over the last decade, since Gavi and partners helped to introduce the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine across 40 countries. Through innovative financing, the Alliance has helped to accelerate the process by 10 years or more β€” bringing the vaccine to children in low-income countries at the same time as those in the richest.

4. Innovation to change nations

This storage fridge is monitored by "ColdTrace" wireless technology, helping to ensure it maintains a safe temperature range to keep vaccines effective - Nexleaf Analytics

Artificial intelligence and mixed reality might have dominated the tech headlines this year, but a quiet revolution in vaccine delivery has also been underway in 2017. It kicked off with a new partnership between Google.org and Gavi to accelerate investment in one promising innovation by Nexleaf Analytics: "ColdTrace" β€” a wireless technology that helps to ensure fridges maintain a safe temperature range to keep vaccines effective, remotely sending back information to health workers and ministries to help inform decision-making.

And more was to come: Gavi's Cold Chain Equipment Optimisation Platform  took off this year, with eligible countries applying 62,000 pieces of new equipment, more than a quarter of which was for previously unequipped facilities.

Gavi also called on Silicon Valley smarts, as well as new tech entrepreneurs through its INFUSE initiative, in a bid to back the next generation of immunisation innovation, which has helped to spur collaborations like Zipline, a pioneering partnership using drones to fly life-saving medical interventions to where they're needed most in Rwanda. First, blood supplies - next, vital vaccines? 

5. Beating outbreaks and stopping superbugs

A community organiser gets the message out on the cholera vaccine drive in Freetown, Sierra Leone β€” WHO/Olivia Acland

The threat of cholera of kept hitting the headlines in 2017, as a growing number of humanitarian crises unfolded β€” but the global health community fought back, with a series of vaccination campaigns to stop the outbreaks from taking hold.

The collective action came to a head in October with a new action plan to end the disease for good by 2030 β€” a move that will prevent over 95,000 deaths a year.

As 2017 continued to bring new global challenges β€” from climate change to mass displacement β€” there was a greater recognition of the action we need to take now to prevent the next pandemic, as well as the role vaccines can play to help stop drug resistant, superbug strains of diseases like typhoid...

6. Time up for typhoid?

In Lalitpur, Nepal, 20,000 children received the new typhoid conjugate vaccine to assess its effectiveness β€” Take On Typhoid

In September, a new typhoid vaccine was  recommended by a panel of World Health Organization experts for all children over six months of age in endemic countries β€” offering the prospect to take on a deadly disease that affects 12 million people around the world every year.

It comes at a time when drug-resistant typhoid is spreading across Asia and Africa, posing a serious threat to global health. Vaccines can help stop the spread of the disease and fight these superbug strains.

With a further five vaccines under development and expected to be available between 2018 and 2022, Gavi pledged to help take on typhoid, launching new support to help introduce the vaccines to low-income countries as early as 2019.

7. Millions more lives 
will be saved

A mother and her child at a local community health centre in BαΊ―c Giang province, Vietnam β€” GAVI/Nguyen Thanh Da

The good news of 2017 is that vaccine coverage across the globe is at a high of 86%, with a million more children receiving the basic shots to protect against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough in the last year.

The not-so-good news is that these numbers look to have slowed down in recent years, and still fall short of the 90% target set by the World Health Organization for 2015. This could be due to a lack of data rather than slowing progress, but either way β€” more ambitious targets will be needed if we are to achieve the aims of the Sustainable Development Goals on global health.

What is on track is Gavi's mission: new figures this year show the Alliance has so far saved 9 million lives since 2000, and remains on target to immunise 300 million children by 2020 β€” meaning millions more lives will be saved yet.

As the year draws to a close, another ambitious target of universal health care was committed to by some of the biggest players in the global health community. And the best news yet? We're already on the way: vaccines are the stepping-stones to a world where everyone gets good healthcare.

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