Interview: GAVI’s Mercy Ahun talks Ghana’s upcoming vaccine milestone

Last week in DC, I had the opportunity to sit down with Mercy Ahun from the GAVI Alliance Secretariat. When I first met her two years ago, she was GAVI’s Director of Program Delivery, but recently she was named GAVI’s Special Representative to GAVI-Eligible Countries. In this role, she serves as a bridge between GAVI, countries receiving GAVI support, and donors, and she works to develop customized approaches that deliver even more effective results on the ground.

ONE is really excited that in less than 1 month, Ghana will become the first country to roll out pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines at the same time. Especially as a Ghanaian, what does this milestone mean to you?

It’s been exciting! I remember the first time I was talking to Ghana’s EPI (Extended Program on Immunization) Manager about this, and I said, are you sure you want to do this? And he said yes—we are close to achieving MDG 5 (reducing child deaths); doing this allows us to hit two birds with one stone. And when I started looking at their vaccine programs, and saw that they already had achieved high coverage levels of other vaccines, I said yes, I think the system is strong enough to do this. And I think it is important to document the process in Ghana so then others can learn from it.

I go to Ghana about six times in a year, and we have an excellent relationship not just with the EPI Manager but with other groups in the Ministry of Health and with the partners. When we’re in Ghana, you can catch the excitement. I remember that one person said to me, “It feels like the whole world is looking at us”, and to that I just think: wow.

What does a country like Ghana need to do to prepare itself for a vaccines roll out?

I think one of the most important parts is having the needed cold chain equipment for the new vaccines. Giving out two vaccines at once requires a major expansion, and Ghana planed it so that the major 10 regions in Ghana will each have the right fridges and storage units.

The Ghana Health Service also partners with WHO, UNICEF and others; together with community groups, they have developed 8 committees that are planning for this launch. There are groups focused on logistics, training, and communication which meet separately, and they also brought in a professional advertising company from the private sector to guide them. They have done a survey of local knowledge, attitudes, and practices, and they are using the findings to design appropriate messages for communities. So much is on the line that needs to be done, but things are on track.

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How have you seen African leaders respond to GAVI’s work? What do they say about vaccines, and their own governments’ role in supporting them?

I think African leaders recognize the importance of immunization. President Kibaki of Kenya launched a new vaccine himself in Kenya last year. I was in Cameroon and it was the First Lady’s office which led the charge there. Ghana is expecting the President to do the launch in April.

But we also know that it’s about more than just the launch, and more than just about Presidential leadership. We know that when countries apply for GAVI support, all the ministers of health and finance need to sign the application too, because GAVI support is not for free. They need to make a commitment of their own. Since we introduced a co-financing policy in 2008, almost all countries have provided financial support for vaccines, which shows their own commitment. Come 2016, we expect that 16 countries will have a ceremony because they will be off of GAVI’s support and increasing their own contributions to immunization financing. I think it’s fantastic.

In your time working for GAVI, what have you found to be the most rewarding?

I think the most rewarding thing has been working with others. We are an alliance. We bring together the strengths of organizations from the public sector (like WHO or UNICEF), from the private sector, from foundations, and from other partners to develop immunization plans with countries. I have found that most rewarding because I think when you involve your recipient countries in the policy-development process, it is more likely to be sustainable because they feel ownership over the programs.

You and your colleagues carry a lot of responsibility at GAVI, ensuring that the world’s poorest children receive life-saving vaccinations. What do you like to do on your days off?

I have three kids—two are teenagers who are still home with me—so I like chatting with them. We are Ghanaians in Switzerland, so sometimes there are cultural challenges, and we discuss these things with each other. I like singing, dancing, attending church services. Really I try not to look at my blackberry, especially on the weekends, and enjoy myself.