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A renewed commitment to immunization in the DRC

September 11, 2019 by Guy Bokongo

DRC President Tshisekedi Tshilombo at the National Forum on Immunization and Polio Eradication

DRC President Tshisekedi Tshilombo has committed to making concerted efforts to increase immunization rates throughout the country, especially among high-risk rural populations. Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Diana Zeynab Alhindawi.

Against the backdrop of an ongoing Ebola outbreak, top leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo pledge to increase immunization efforts and work to eradicate polio. PATH Advocacy and Policy Manager Guy Bokongo shares his personal reflections.

Vaccines save lives and stop suffering. But, in the DRC, one out of every seven children dies of a vaccine-preventable disease before the age of five. The country has one of the highest rates of child mortality in the world. In recent years, the DRC has seen major outbreaks—mostly at the provincial level—of measles, polio, and yellow fever. All of these are vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Robust health policies, adequate financial resources, and delivering on commitments will improve the accessibility and availability of high-quality, lifesaving immunization services, thereby creating a brighter future for the DRC’s women, newborns, and ch

Robust health policies, adequate financial resources, and delivering on commitments will improve the accessibility and availability of high-quality, lifesaving immunization services. Photo: Gavi/Evelyn Hockstein.

It was within this context that President Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo—less than a year into office—convened the National Forum on Immunization and Polio Eradication. Speaking at the July 2019 event, he made a powerful and public commitment to immunization as a pillar of universal health coverage.

In the country’s decentralized health system, both national and provincial leaders have important roles to play in fostering a strong countrywide immunization program. Conference attendees included governors and leaders from each of the DRC’s 26 provinces. President Tshisekedi Tshilombo called on them to propose new and innovative approaches for strengthening immunization systems, including addressing gaps in coverage and overcoming barriers to access and utilization of existing services.

Leaders across the DRC have made new and public commitments to boost immunization rates and eliminate polio.
High level attendees at the DRC Forum on Immunization and Polio Eradication

The forum was attended by governors from each of the DRC’s 26 provinces as well as civil society leaders and high-level representatives from the global immunization space. Photo: Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

New momentum and funding for immunization

The forum culminated in a tremendous display of commitment when provincial governors pledged to take concrete action to improve immunization systems—providing oversight, accountability, and resources—by signing on to the Kinshasa Declaration on Immunization and Polio Eradication.

The next day, the DRC Ministry of Finance announced a disbursement of US$3 million in co-financing for the purchase of new vaccines through Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. At the heart of Gavi’s funding model, co-financing requires countries to meet part of the cost of Gavi-supported vaccines. This approach enhances country ownership of immunization financing and helps strengthen financially sustainable immunization programs in preparation for Gavi to phase out support for these vaccines.

The DRC’s National Forum on Immunization and Polio Eradication was the largest of its kind ever held in the country. There was a feeling of optimism in the air—a realization of the need to act now, and to do more. The clear goals and strong leadership that emerged out of the forum are a clear indication of the Congolese leaders’ appetite for strengthening immunization systems and ridding the country of polio once and for all.

DRC governor signing the Kinshasa Declaration

The forum culminated in the signing of the Kinshasa Declaration on Immunization and Polio Eradication by Congolese leadership including each of the country's 26 provincial governors. Photo: PATH.

“PATH was pleased to help organize and be part of these forum,” says Trad Hatton, PATH’s country director for DRC. “President Tshisekedi Tshilombo‘s commitment builds on progress made by leaders at all levels of the Congolese government in recent years and clearly demonstrates the new head of state’s determination to improve immunization coverage. We look forward to continuing to support the president in realizing his vision of improving the health and general well-being of the Congolese people.”

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