Rhianna Goozee discusses the health disparities highlighted by the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out

Vaccines bring us closer … except when they don’t

Given the events of the last year, World Immunization Week has never been more relevant. Many believe that vaccines will offer us a way out of the coronavirus pandemic, and this year’s theme ‘Vaccines bring us closer’ feels particularly pertinent after so much time spent distanced from friends and family.

But while vaccines offer hope, the path back to ‘normality’ is still a long one. Vaccinating the global population against COVID-19 may be one of the biggest logistical challenges the world has faced. And the roll out of the vaccines so far has shone a spotlight on global inequities in health.

In February, the UN reported that just 10 countries had received 80% of COVID-19 shots. Moreover, high-income countries have been accused of vaccine hoarding after purchasing more doses of vaccines than they have people.

Disparities in vaccine access can only act to widen global health inequity. But the problem with failing to ensure access to vaccines for everyone, everywhere goes beyond the health of individuals in lower income countries. Indeed, there are many arguments supporting more equal distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

  • It’s a moral issue: Essentially, ensuring access for all is the right thing to do. Getting vaccines to everyone will save lives. Some countries are not even able to vaccinate their frontline health workers, leading to further negative health consequences as medicine is more widely affected. Education also suffers as schools are unable to open. All of this will have long-term social consequences for countries that don’t have access to vaccines.
  • It affects us all: Beyond saving lives, the fact is that the world can’t open up globally unless all countries have vaccine coverage. Travel restrictions and closed borders will remain while some countries are still struggling to control COVID-19.
  • The global economy depends on it: Saving lives is the main aim of vaccination, but the global economy has also been hard hit by national lockdowns and travel restrictions. One study predicted that vaccine inequity could cost the global economy over $9 trillion dollars in 2021. In a world of interconnected production and supply chains, no economy is safe while others struggle.
  • Vaccine inequity could breed vaccine-evading variants: As we’ve already witnessed, viruses mutate and these new variants can be problematic. A new outbreak in one country could lead to the spread of more threatening strains elsewhere in the world.

It’s clear that whether for selfless or selfish reasons, we must cooperate globally to minimize vaccine disparities for the good of everyone. But what can be done about it?

The WHO, in collaboration with others, is attempting to increase vaccine equity through COVAX. This scheme aims to deliver billions of vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, although efforts have been hampered by limited supply resulting from vaccine hoarding. Nonetheless, it is hoped COVAX can offer a lifeline for nations who are unable to secure COVID-19 vaccines through other means.

It’s not just about money, either. Donating vaccines is well and good, but we also have to ensure countries have the infrastructure to store and transport them. New vaccines that don’t require cold chain logistics are a start, but many nations will still require support to get them to the people that need them.

Of course, the pandemic has increased awareness of health inequity in one disease, but it’s important we don’t lose sight of broader disparities in immunization and the challenge of achieving global health equity beyond COVID-19. That’s why for World Immunization Week, the WHO is also drawing attention to the millions of children who aren’t getting the vaccines they need, including those placed at risk of diseases such as measles and polio because they have not been vaccinated during the pandemic.

COVID-19 has brought the issue of health inequalities to the fore, but differences in access to medicines and vaccines were present before COVID-19. And they will remain once COVID-19 is over. That is, unless we use this opportunity to raise awareness of health disparities globally and support changes that can bring us closer to a healthier future for everyone, no matter where they happen to live.

Written By Rhianna Goozee. Rhianna is a Senior Medical Writer at Mind+Matter, if you would like to get in touch her email is [email protected]