Our work overseas

Vaccines are a lifesaver in NZ and the world

New Zealand still isn’t immune from outbreaks of disease, and a lack of vaccination can still be a death sentence for kiwi children

Vaccines are a lifesaver in NZ and the world


It’s never a nice experience, watching your child get poked with a needle. If you’re lucky, they’ll just look at you with wounded expression.

“Why, Daddy? Why?!?”

Perhaps followed by a trembling lip, a wee tear, and a heart-melting plea for a recuperative ice cream. Fine.

But that small ouch can be a big life saver.


Vaccines may seem a bit scary, but they’re one of the most effective tools we have for saving children’s lives.

One issue is that so many Kiwis have had little exposure to diseases such as diphtheria, polio or typhoid. But in the developing world, where so much of Unicef’s work takes place, it’s common knowledge that a lack of vaccination can be a death sentence.

Countries in which a large share of the population is living in extreme poverty often have lower immunisation rates due to lack of funding, remote populations, and poor infrastructure.

And in situations such as the current Rohingya crisis, where hundreds of thousands of people are packed together in unsanitary conditions, disease could easily devastate communities, and kill thousands upon thousands of children.


We are in a very privileged position here in New Zealand. We have good sanitation, clean drinking water, we aren’t coping with disaster or conflict, and we have easy access to vaccinations.

But New Zealand still isn’t immune from outbreaks of disease, and a lack of vaccination can still be a death sentence for kiwi children.

During New Zealand’s last major outbreak of measles, in the 1990s, there were around 7000 cases, and seven deaths.

New Zealand still isn’t immune from outbreaks of disease, and a lack of vaccination can still be a death sentence for kiwi children.

From 2011 to 2013 there were four deaths from whooping cough, and three of those deaths were babies too young to have started their immunisations.

2016 saw the worst outbreak in decades of mumps — a disease that can cause swelling of tissue around the brain, permanent deafness, testicular swelling and sterility.

Even though we are now on the cusp of eradicating polio from the world, it caused huge damage to New Zealand children, and there are still support groups for those affected by this terrible disease.


It’s perhaps understandable that we’ve forgotten, or simply don’t know, about how devastating these diseases can be.

But we cannot afford to become complacent.

The measles vaccine alone has saved more than twenty million lives since the year 2000. But on New Zealand’s West Coast, for example, the measles vaccination rate is just 78 per cent for babies under 8 months old.

It wouldn’t take much for a measles outbreak to utterly sweep the population. With roughly one in a thousand cases proving fatal, that’s not a risk worth taking.


At Unicef, we know what preventable diseases can do. We see it every day. Children die. Families are left devastated. And so we are doing everything we can to stop that happening.

Through our work we hear many beautiful stories of survival, and devastating stories of sadness.

We hear from people personally affected by diseases such as measles, polio, whooping cough and tetanus, and we hear from those who have watched their loved ones suffer through them.

These are serious issues, and we’re serious about saving people’s lives. Every vaccination we administer is one less baby dying, or one less teenager getting sick.


Each year, Unicef provides vaccinations for almost half of the world’s children. It goes hand in hand with our work in nutrition, sanitation, education, and child protection.

We purchase so many vaccines, on such a monumental scale, that we have actually halved the price paid for vaccines to pharmaceutical companies. That money saved is then used to help even more children.

Make no mistake, vaccinations are vital, and without them many babies wouldn’t make it. In fact, up to three million children a year wouldn’t make it.

We are very proud to be making those babies cry, for a few seconds, in order to offer a lifetime of protection.

Words by Lachlan Forsyth, Unicef NZ Communications Director.