Religious and traditional leaders and senior media representatives from across the continent are gathering here this week to explore how their unique influence in hard-to-reach communities can boost immunization rates and support child survival efforts in Africa, where two-thirds of child deaths are entirely preventable.
"No one can doubt that the survival of children in Africa is in peril," said President Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal in his opening address to the forum. "We are gathered here to join forces in the fight to keep these children alive and healthy. We are here to help battle poverty, inadequate health infrastructure, and insufficient resources."
Immunization and child survival rates across Africa have faltered in the past decade, according to UNICEF country data released last week in the Progress for Children report. Of the nearly 11 million children who die each year under the age of five, 42 per cent are in sub-Saharan Africa.
"We have paid insufficient attention to the community of religious and traditional leaders whose influence in the family and community can ensure that children not only survive, but thrive," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy. "We believe that without the engagement of people with direct and immediate community influence, even the best health programmes will not reach all the children who need them. The active participation of religious and traditional groups is crucial to the success of any child survival effort."
Bellamy noted that while many communities lack schools, health facilities or sanitation, few are without places of worship. For many people, religious institutions are an important, readily available source of information and advice on many matters, including health.
"Religious and traditional leaders have enormous potential to build trust and ensure that children receive life-saving health care, but it remains largely untapped," said Religions for Peace Secretary-General Dr. William Vendley. "This meeting offers a unique opportunity to harness that potential by renewing commitments, strengthening inter-religious cooperation, and promoting partnerships. These important African leaders have a huge role in protecting children."
Delegates to the Pan-African Forum on Building Trust for Immunization and Child Survival also include leading figures from the continent's most influential media, who are an equally strong ally in promoting public trust in immunization.
UNICEF and Religions for Peace believe that the media should help people make informed decisions, and that they have an irreplaceable role to play in creating demand for live-saving health care for children.
"The way in which the media represents, misrepresents, or even ignores children's issues can influence decisions taken on behalf of children," said Bellamy. "The media have a growing influence on how society regards children, and how we treat children. So they have a responsibility to promote facts and attitudes that will save lives."
Over 200 delegates will share their diverse experiences on immunization and child survival - from the perspective of Muslim communities, Christian communities, and traditional communities. They will hear presentations on immunization trends and polio eradication by UNICEF and WHO health experts and take part in discussing subjects such as HIV/AIDS.
Interfaith, peace, and media consultative working groups will also be conducted, leading toward a joint Call to Action promoting a grass-roots partnership in immunization and child survival.
The Pan African Forum on Building Trust for Immunization and Child Survival, co-sponsored by UNICEF and the World Conference for Religion and Peace, will be attended by more than 200 religious and traditional leaders and senior media representatives from across Africa.
A representative from the Commission of the African Union; David L. Heymann, WHO Director-General for Polio Eradication; Rima Salah, UNICEF Regional Director for West & Central Africa; and Per Engebak, UNICEF Regional Director for East & Southern Africa will also be among those taking part.