President Julius Maada Bio on the 19th February, 2023 chaired the side event of the African Union (AU) which was discussing the reduction of vaccine-preventable deaths and illnesses and to galvanize the momentum towards the achievement of universal immunization.
The President highlighted Sierra Leone’s specific investment in vaccines and immunization intimating how the country remains committed to achieving the Immunization Agenda 2030 as well as the African Regional Strategic Plan on immunization.
“We believe that it is possible to achieve the national and global immunization targets including eradication and elimination goals. Progress in meeting immunization targets, we believe, is a driver for equitable health outcomes for children, mothers and the population as a whole.
“My Government’s immunization programme is embedded within the country’s primary health care system. The period 2021 and 2022 saw the consolidation of the gains in the immunization system. This period saw a stable and high immunization coverage for key antigens; 93% and 94% for measles and 96% and 94% for DPT3 for the period 2021 and 2022 respectively,” he averred.
President Julius Maada Bio also recalled that the country’s Ministry of Health and Sanitation introduced new vaccines that included the rota-virus vaccine in 2016, the pneumococcal vaccine in 2018, changed from the measles to the Measles-Rubella Vaccine in 2019 and as part of the polio eradication initiative introduced 2 doses of Inactivated Polio Vaccine into the routine immunization programme.
“As part of the ambitious national cervical cancer elimination strategy, in October 2022 we introduced the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine as a strategy to eliminate Cervical Cancer by 2030. Over a 2-week period, 183,218 girls aged 10 years were vaccinated nationwide using a combination of school-based and community outreach strategies.
“In Sierra Leone, 20% of under-five mortality is due to malaria. The new malaria vaccine, planned for introduction in 2024 will reduce hospitalization for severe malaria and all-cause mortality in under-5 children.
“As part of our commitment to the Immunization Agenda 2030 and the African Regional Strategic Plan on Immunization, we have paid all the co-financing requirements for vaccine supplies including an advance payment for 2023 despite the economic challenges that my country faces.
“We have committed $ 806,238 for 575,370 doses of routine vaccines (DPT, PCV, MR, Rota, Yellow fever, HPV) and allocated funds for 1 million doses of the new malaria vaccine in the 2023 budget. In line with the Gavi 5.0 strategy that emphasizes country ownership, Government has also committed funds in the 2023 budget to start paying for traditional vaccines (BCG, oral Polio, Tetanus-Diphtheria for pregnant women),” he said.
The President, who was accompanied to the event by his Minister of Health and Sanitation, Dr Austin Demby, told the gathering that they believed, as a Government, that the returns on investment for immunization were very high for the country’s progress towards meeting the SDGs. He added that that was reflected in his Government’s national immunization policies, its integrated service delivery programme, and its commitment to working with multiple stakeholders in order to expand coverage.
He closed by talking about the country’s recent success dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak in Sierra Leone, noting that the pandemic had a negative impact on the country’s immunization performance.
“COVID-19 public emergency restrictions, initial concerns about the safety of healthcare facilities, rumours and misinformation about vaccine safety, all prevented or limited access to immunization services. Between March and May of 2020, there was a significant reduction in routine immunization coverage. DPT3 dropped from 92% coverage in January 2020 to 74% in April of the same year.
“However, due to the robust COVID-19 outbreak response, and our strong routine immunization systems as well as the well-established primary health care structures, the drop in immunization coverage only lasted for a few months. By June of 2020, immunization coverage had recovered to pre-COVID-19 levels. The immunization coverage for other immunization antigens also followed a similar pattern.
“By January 2023, over 73% of the eligible population had been fully vaccinated for COVID-19. We are now incorporating COVID-19 vaccination into our routine immunization program. We are capitalizing on resources from the COVID-19 vaccination support from partners and additional Government resources to strengthen our routine immunization systems,” he closed.
During an event that was held on Saturday 18 February 2023, President Bio delivered the keynote address during the launch the first edition of the ‘Education in Africa’ report, released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the African Union on the margins of the Africa Assembly Heads of State and Government.
Adding his voice to the continental education strategy for Africa, the President noted that, while the event hoped to bring a diverse range of voices and perspectives from Heads of State and Governments, other senior decision-makers and stakeholders from around the continent on the future of education, it was also good for the 2063 Agenda.
“The African Union launched the 2016-2025 Continental Education Strategy to create a new African citizen who would be an effective change agent and a citizen who would help get the continent on the sustainable development track, as envisioned by our 2063 Agenda. Our efforts are, therefore, geared towards teaching fit-for-purpose knowledge, competencies, skills, and promoting the innovation and creativity required to develop Africa’s human capital.
“Today’s formative new report is a joint product of the African Union and UNESCO. Learning losses occasioned and intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic and other global events have set the continent back even further. The report seemingly shows that our vision to develop competitive educational systems in Africa is still out of reach,” he said.
He, however, noted that in spite of their best efforts, African countries were still situated at the bottom of education tables, which on one hand indicated that those countries might have started with a disadvantage and on the other hand that there was a perceived risk that they might not meet their ambitions to achieve SDG4.
“We should, however, be careful to avoid reading this report as a blanket assessment. The new SDG 4 scorecard proposes a way to evaluate progress by how likely each country is to achieve the benchmarks it has set for itself, rather often unrealistic targets that were externally imposed.
“This new assessment report, therefore, gives credit to countries for their progress, regardless of their starting point. It allows us to pinpoint countries that are cutting through challenges to achieve progress. It does not look at how countries are ranked on a global scale. We should, therefore, identify the policies that are helping to make the difference.
“Sierra Leone, for instance, is pleased to appear on the SDG 4 Scorecard. Our country’s Free Quality School Education programme has prioritised and increased education spending and investments, introduced inclusive policies, and expanded access to education to over one million new learners, especially from the early childhood education level. Through our national integrated early childhood development policy, we have made great progress in giving children the best start in life. In addition to political support and commitment at the highest levels, we believe that the right progressive policies will afford us the opportunity to achieve the goals we set,” he said.
It could be recalled that President Julius Maada Bio, as co-chair of the global Transform Education Committee, urged a virtual High-Level Steering Committee meeting by UNESCO in December 2022, reiterated his commitment as the Global Champion for Education Transformation to rally support for education as a critical investment for the youths and for building a peaceful, just, and sustainable future for all societies.
“Sierra Leone believes strongly that foundational learning is the place to start. We can meet our CESA objectives if we focus on getting foundational learning right.