Luc Debruyne, President, Global Vaccines, GSK

As the UN General Assembly in New York draws to a close this week, I was happy to hear discussions at the meeting moving on from debating what should be part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to agreeing what actually needs to happen now on the ground to improve health, prosperity and sustainable development by 2030.

There is no time to lose. Despite amazing progress in some areas, it feels like the challenge only gets bigger. Hard fought progress is under threat.

When I became leader of GSK’s global vaccines business in 2013, Ebola was barely heard of, antibiotic resistance was yet to feature on the political agenda and the scale of the refugee crisis was only just becoming apparent. Today, while West Africa continues the rebuild after the devastation brought to communities by Ebola, it is estimated that there are 65 million refugees and displaced people worldwide. That is six times the population of my home country, Belgium.

Vaccines have an important role to play in global health security – they help to prevent infectious disease, potentially reducing the need for antibiotics. They can help ensure that diseases such as measles and pneumonia don’t take hold in refugee camps where children are particularly vulnerable. And there is growing global consensus that innovating to find new vaccines against emerging diseases is a critical part of efforts to protect against the next pandemic or epidemic.

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A health worker delivers vaccines and other key health interventions to children in a refugee camp in South Sudan. Photo: Gavi/Mike Pflanz.

Given the incredible power of vaccination, they are rightly seen as one of the best investments that any government or healthcare organisation can make. To give you an idea, recent reports have shown that for every $1 governments spend on immunization, a $44 return on investment is received. Thanks to collaborations with organisations such as Gavi and UNICEF, more children than ever before are receiving innovative vaccines with the potential to save lives.

But the scale of the global health security challenge now puts these lives in jeopardy. The majority of refugees are being hosted in countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Ethiopia or Pakistan where health systems were already stretched and struggling. Many of the children arriving from conflict zones such as Somalia, Syria or South Sudan are not immunised, leaving them at risk of potentially deadly disease.

Governments have a responsibility to care for these populations; however, sometimes their ability to do so is compromised. This is where charities such as Medicines San Frontiers, Save the Children, Americares and the Red Cross are stepping in, providing direct support where it is urgently needed.

GSK and other companies have a long track record of helping out in such crisis situations. We have a well-established process working with partners so that if, for example, an earthquake strikes somewhere, we can quickly despatch emergencies medicines. But this is a different situation; the reality is that people may be in refugee camps for a long time. Charities need a long term, reliable and timely supply arrangement with flexibility.

We’ve listened and as a result, we have made a new offer for our very lowest vaccine price to help charities that are running vaccination programmes for refugees where the government is unable to do so. We’re starting with Synflorix, one of our most innovative and complex vaccines against pneumonia and the hope is to expand this commitment to other essential vaccines in the future.

It sounds simple but it means really listening to what people need, strong collaboration and good will. This offer is made on the basis that others would not seek to reference this special price that is intended to support refugee populations.

Why does it matter? Well, while improving health may be just one of the 17 SDGs, it is the one that underpins the rest and is the key to truly leaving no one behind. Keeping people healthy, enabling them to survive, thrive and realise their potential is the way to transform communities.

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Luc Debruyne. Photo: GSK.