Friday July 01, 2022

COVID-19 vaccination: PRCS steps in global leadership role

August 17, 2020

The world is in the throes of a long tough fight with the new coronavirus disease COVID-19 since it reared its ugly head in the city of Wuhan in the Hubei province of China in December 2019.

COVID-19 – the first pandemic of this scale in one hundred years – has created an upheaval in the world and severely affected global economies and caused unimaginable impact on all sections and segments of societies all over the world. It also threatens acute food insecurity.

The pandemic has tested the international crisis response and financing system, exacerbated major challenges facing the world today, and highlighted weaknesses and loopholes in the global preparedness and widespread failure to prepare for the secondary socioeconomic impacts.

The so far uncontrollable pandemic is growing apace affecting over 19 million people and killing over 718,000 worldwide, with the most vulnerable groups and individuals facing a disproportionate higher impact. Europe and the United States of America (USA) have suffered the worst in terms of confirmed cases, fatalities, and economic losses.

In order to come to grips with this serious health challenge, the world’s top laboratories, drugmakers, and research institutes are busy conducting research round the clock to develop the much-needed vaccine. A feverish race is on in the global pharmaceutical sector to develop the much-needed preventive vaccine. The World Health Organization (WHO) is working with the pharmaceutical industry to develop and test vaccines, which are not only safe, but also efficacious. The WHO is also coordinating in a global trial to assess the safety and efficacy of four therapeutics/drugs against the COVID-19.

The challenge is to speed up and harmonize processes to ensure that once the products are deemed safe and effective for administration, they can be made accessible to all the people irrespective of geographical, ethnic or financial considerations. We do not want a repeat of past experience of the HIV epidemic when the AIDS medications were inaccessible to the most vulnerable population for a long time. More recently in the deployment of vaccines against H1N1 and Ebola outbreaks, it was again witnessed that when tools were available, they were not equally available to all.

Keeping these experiences in view, heads of state and global health leaders organized a global consultation at an event, co-hosted by the WHO, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the presidents of France and the European Union on April 24, 2020. This forum committed to work together guided by a common vision to protect the humanity from suffering and the devastating socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic.

The United Nations and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) Movement have also urged the governments, the private sector, international organizations and civil society [in a June 3, 2020 joint statement] to unite for the development of a ‘people’s vaccine’, which should protect not only the affluent, but should also cover the under privileged, the old in the nursing care homes and the young in the refugee camps.

The IFRC and Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement also aim to support all phases of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, from development to deployment, and have supported several important calls for action led by the global health institutions and civil society networks, advocating equitable and affordable access to new COVID-19 therapeutics.

In a landmark development, the IFRC and Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement have also created Global Committee for Covid-19 Vaccination, Advocacy, Fundraising, and Resource Mobilization. To acknowledge and appreciate the significant contribution to the anti-COVID operation in Pakistan, professional commitment, innovative approach and dedication towards the humanitarian cause, the IFRC and the RC/RC Movement have made Secretary General of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS), Khalid bin Majeed as the co-Chairman of the Committee (name of the Committee). The unanimous nomination has been made from among the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies of 194 countries who are members of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Being an active member of the RC/RC Movement, the Pakistan Red Crescent Society has a vast national network spreading across the length and breadth of Pakistan that helps it to effectively address the natural and manmade calamities, which befall the country at frequent intervals, as Pakistan happens to be a disaster prone country.

Once the world achieves a breakthrough in the search for a safe and effective ‘people’s vaccine’, the PRCS together with its 192 sister National Societies will ensure that no one in any part of the world, including Pakistan, remains unprotected and uncovered.

In addition to COVID-19, another related concerning issue facing the IFRC and the Red Cross/Red Crescent National Societies is that the killer pandemic has disrupted the childhood immunization activities in 68 vulnerable countries, exposing over 80 million children to the vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs), including polio, measles, and rubella.

The anti-measles campaigns have been suspended in 27 countries and polio campaigns in 38 countries. This disruption in routine immunization activities threatens to reverse the hard-won achievements to access more children and adolescents with a wider range of vaccines. The secondary impact of the pandemic is thus predicted to result in more deaths from the VPDs than perhaps from the Covid-19. There are growing concerns that resources to address secondary impacts will not be sufficient.

The Pakistan Red Crescent Society has not lagged behind even in the immunization campaign and as an auxiliary to the government has been coordinating with all the provincial health departments to immunize children against 10 diseases in high-risk areas like Karachi, the provincial capital of Sindh, Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan and the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Qilla Abdullah remains the major high-risk district in Balochistan with high number of unvaccinated children. The 10 diseases the PRCS has been working against are diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), measles, mumps, rubella, Haemophilus influenzae type b infections, hepatitis B, influenza, and pneumococcal infections.

Before the launch of Immunization and Primary Health Project in Qilla Abdullah by the PRCS, the total coverage was only 7 percent, which increased to 76 percent after the PRCS participation. The dropout rate in this high-risk area has plummeted from 80 percent to just 6 percent. The project was initiated in January 2019 and continues to be successfully implemented.

Though the Pakistan Red Crescent Society is highly focused on the COVID-19, it is not oblivious to its responsibilities towards dealing with the childhood immunization campaigns. The emergence of 58 new polio cases in Pakistan and the WHO’s fresh warning about widespread transmission has not gone unheeded and a robust campaign has been restarted in the high-risk areas after a four-month suspension. The PRCS, as per its mandate, has started working with all the provincial health departments to deal with the new surge in cases.

— The writer is Secretary General Pakistan Red Crescent Society