By Dr. Jon Andrus, Executive Vice President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Director of the Vaccine Advocacy and Education Program

Today marks the start of World Immunization Week — an opportunity to place renewed focus on vaccine advocacy and education. This year’s theme, Close the Immunization Gap, emphasizes the importance of equity in immunization levels as outlined in the Global Vaccine Action Plan (GVAP). The Plan, endorsed by the 194 Member States of the World Health Assembly in May 2012, is a framework to prevent millions of deaths by 2020 through universal access to vaccines for people in all communities.

Despite improvements in global vaccine coverage during the past decade, regional and local disparities in immunization coverage persist for a number of reasons, including limited resources, poor management and a lack of country ownership over national immunization programs.

Vaccines have the ability to save 2 - 3 million lives per year, yet we are not fully utilizing the power of immunization. This World Immunization Week, we must take stock and accelerate progress towards the goals outlined in the GVAP. These efforts must extend beyond World Immunization Week and become an every-day priority.

Sabin’s Vaccine Advocacy and Education (VAE) program continuously strives to fulfill the principles outlined in the GVAP: country ownership, shared responsibility, equity, integration, sustainability and innovation. VAE’s unique programs are carrying this work forward.

At Sabin, we’re supporting country ownership by catalyzing in-country and regional discussions, while generating and disseminating knowledge that directly reflects the needs of country experts and implementers. The Coalition against Typhoid, the International Association of Immunization Managers and our Special Projects are all working to this end. Our work also embodies the principle of shared responsibility, as we partner with global organizations, academic institutions, private organizations and governmental offices, among others, on research, advocacy and immunization strategies. For example, the Coalition against Typhoid’s upcoming International Conference on Typhoid and Invasive non-typhoidal salmonella disease will convene clinicians, scientists, policy makers, government officials and public health practitioners to address the burden of typhoid — a disease responsible for needlessly killing nearly 200,000 children annually.

Our programs are highly focused on equity. We are raising awareness on the need for equal access to vaccines and are working toward shortening the lag time exists in the introduction of new vaccines between high and low income countries. For example, the Dengue Vaccine Initiative, for which Sabin works with as the advocacy arm, is laying the groundwork for dengue vaccine introduction, so that once a dengue vaccine is available, it can be equally distributed to all, including the most marginalized communities.

In the spirit of integration, we are working across disciplines and sectors to find solutions to immunization challenges. We engage both the public and private sectors, and work with partners outside of the immunization space that cover a vast variety of public health, nutrition, and water and sanitation issues.

Lastly, we are committed to sustainability and innovation. While existing immunization programs must be enduring, new technologies, approaches and methodologies must be employed to truly achieve universal access to immunization.

Despite the work of committed partners around the globe, we are still far from achieving the targets outlined in the GVAP. A recent evaluation by the World Health Organization revealed that we are off track on achieving five of the six mid-point targets. This World Immunization Week should serve as a rallying cry for the immunization community. Progress against vaccine-preventable diseases is fragile and our support for the GVAP targets and principles should be unwavering. It is our collective duty to ensure that no person suffer from a vaccine preventable disease. While the increased focus on the GVAP during World Immunization Week is certainly welcomed, this commitment must extend beyond April 30 until people everywhere are benefitting from the miracle of immunization.