Remarks by Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director, at the opening of a UN high-level event to tackle misinformation and champion children’s right to immunization, New York,
Good afternoon — and welcome, everyone, to this important discussion.
My thanks to Ambassador Bessho and the government of Japan for its commitment to this issue, and to universal health coverage more broadly.
And thank you to our many partner organizations represented here today — including WHO, the Gates Foundation, Harvard and Facebook.
And we must work together — as one — to combat misinformation, build trust in vaccines and vaccination programs, and improve quality of care to give every child, everywhere, the lifesaving gift of immunization.
According to the WHO, immunization prevents between two and three million deaths every year.
It wasn’t always this way.
Before vaccines, millions of children fell victim each year to diseases like diphtheria, measles, polio, tetanus, meningitis and pertussis.
For children, these diseases could be a death sentence. Or they resulted in long-term disabilities.
Today, the world is closer than ever to eradicating polio. We’ve achieved an 80 per cent decline in measles deaths. And neonatal tetanus has been eliminated in all but 13 countries.
Still, an estimated 20 million infants are missing out on the benefits of vaccination each year. Putting them at an unacceptable risk of disease — and putting their communities and countries at risk of outbreaks.
We’re already seeing an alarming spike in measles cases worldwide. Countries like Brazil, Madagascar, the Philippines and Ukraine all experienced outbreaks over the last two years.
Examples like this — and many more, including here in the US — represent a collective failure. And as a global community, we must address the root causes of this failure.
Root causes like poverty. Lack of availability. And discrimination.
Think of a child in a conflict zone, where health services have been destroyed.
Think of a refugee child. Perhaps there are no available immunizations within reach of where they are. Perhaps her parents don’t have the information they need about why vaccines are important.
And think of the children in middle and high-income countries like the US whose parents are delaying or refusing to vaccinate their children because of misinformation and mistrust.
In many ways, vaccines have become the victims of their own success. As immunizations have prevented diseases, these diseases have become less visible. And people believe they can let their guard down.
But like the diseases that vaccines prevent, misinformation about vaccines can spread fast. Especially online. The proliferation of information on digital media makes it increasingly difficult for parents to know which sources to trust when it comes to the benefits of immunization.
One harrowing example comes from Pakistan — one of just three countries where polio is still a threat. During a recent polio vaccination campaign in Peshawar, a staged video produced by anti-vaxxers went viral on social media. It showed children allegedly suffering side effects from the polio vaccine.
The result? Nearly one million children did not get the vaccines they needed.
In short, we must not allow mistrust and misinformation to roll back the significant progress made in combatting these diseases worldwide.
As a global community, we need new tactics to build public trust in vaccines and break down not only the barriers of hesitancy, but of availability, cost and access.
We call on governments and donors to invest in quality health systems that deliver quality and affordable immunizations to all children. No matter who they are or where they live. This includes support for health professionals and community workers to give concerned parents accurate information about why vaccines work, and why they’re so important.
We call on technology companies — like the ones represented here today — to do more to promote credible, quality and scientifically proven content about vaccines. This could include modifying search and recommendation algorithms to combat misinformation, and prioritize true, verified information at the top of any search result. Let’s work on this together.
And we call on all parents, everywhere, to vaccinate their children.
UNICEF’s own experience shows that we can make a difference across all these areas. In the Philippines, we worked closely with the government to ensure that vaccination services reach all children. We’re also running “Community for Immunity” — a social media campaign to encourage parents to vaccinate their children using scientifically accurate information on measles.
The result? The measles outbreak is now contained, with 30 per cent fewer cases by May of this year compared to the same period in 2018.
The lesson is clear. If we combine stronger programmes and greater access to vaccines with scientifically accurate information to build trust, we can break down the many barriers between children and the vaccinations they need and deserve.
And along the way, we strengthen basic health services in the communities that most need these improvements. A key step in our goal of universal health coverage — in which every person, no matter where they live, has access to the primary health services they need. Including immunizations.
Vaccines work. But that doesn’t mean that our work is over.
Let’s continue improving access to these lifesaving vaccinations. Everywhere. Let’s push back against the rising tide of misinformation and mistrust. Let’s make sure we leave no one behind.
Thank you. ***