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First Person: A plea for the life-saving properties of vaccines |


Dr Kate O’Brien, Director of Immunization at the World Health Organization, has dedicated her life to vaccinations after working in a pediatric ward in Haiti, where she found that a third of children admitted to having died of vaccine-preventable diseases.

She explains how the United Nations and its partners in COVAX Campusis making sure that vaccines reach every low-income country in the world.


Dr. Kate O'Brien, World Health Organization Director for Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals speaking at the United Nations in Geneva.

Dr Kate O’Brien, World Health Organization Director for Immunizations, Vaccines and Biologicals speaking at the United Nations in Geneva., By UN News / Daniel Johnson

“Four to five million lives are saved each year through vaccination. Immunization is one of the most effective, impactful health interventions in human history.

Hundreds of millions of people died from smallpox. It was a dreaded disease and in the late 1700s there was an amazing breakthrough. An English doctor, Edward Jenner, noticed that milkmaids infected with smallpox – a related disease – were more or less immune to smallpox.

He used that observation to immunize an eight-year-old boy, James Phipps, using cowpox virus. Weeks later, he exposed James Phipps to smallpox, and he didn’t get sick.

Today smallpox has been eradicated worldwide, thanks to vaccination.

Another disease targeted for eradication is polio.

Polio resulted in paralysis of the limbs and disability, and many people died from the disease.
In places like Pakistan and India, and many others, massive campaigns have immunized tens of millions of children in a short period of time.

We are now at a point where polio has been reduced by more than 99% and we are nearing the end of transmission of this virus.


A young girl is vaccinated against polio by medical staff in Kabul, Afghanistan.

© UNICEF / Frank Dejongh

A young girl is vaccinated against polio by medical staff in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Died from lack of vaccine

I work in a hospital in Haiti, the capital, Port-au-Prince. The pediatric ward at that hospital was full of children with measles, diarrhea, meningitis, and tuberculosis. Some are born with tetanus. Every day, about a third of hospitalized children die.

A lot of the diseases they get, are completely preventable by vaccination.

I decided to dedicate my career to not only making sure that new vaccines are developed for diseases, but also, and more importantly, making sure that the vaccines we already have are fully available. accessible, completely available, completely safe and effective for everyone in any part of the world, no matter what community they were born in.


An employee works on a COVID-19 vaccine production line in India

© UNICEF / Dhiraj Singh

An employee works on a COVID-19 vaccine production line in India

The Power of COVAX

We all lived through COVID-19 pandemic of the past few years, extremely difficult. We have seen the amazing development, in a remarkably short amount of time, of a vaccine that prevents COVID disease and fights both infection and transmission.

One of the ways that vaccines have been sent to every country in the world is through the COVAX facility. This allows billions of units to be shipped to countries that need them but cannot purchase them themselves.

80% of drug doses delivered to low-income countries are delivered through the COVAX facility and approximately 92 countries are benefiting.


A mother receives a second dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Obassin, Burkina Faso.

© UNICEF / Frank Dejongh

A mother receives a second dose of COVID-19 vaccine at a medical center in Obassin, Burkina Faso.

Social justice issues

We vaccinate against diseases that are transmitted from person to person. This means that, unless we protect ourselves through the use of vaccines, each of us presents some degree of risk to others.

So I really think vaccination is a matter of social justice and social justice.

There is nothing more overwhelming, or more tragic, than a perfectly healthy child succumbing to a completely preventable infection.”



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