MANILA, 25 April 2011-The World Health Organization (WHO) is stepping up efforts to ensure that more people in the Western Pacific Region, especially children and women, are protected from disease by immunization.

The Regional Office for the Western Pacific today launched its Regional Vaccination Week, joining the WHO Regions for Africa, the Americas, the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe.

While there has been significant progress in improving immunization rates in the Western Pacific, much remains to be done. Millions of children in the Region are still not adequately immunized, which puts their lives at risk from vaccine-preventable diseases, WHO said.

All of the WHO Member States in the Western Pacific Region are also signatories to the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Among other targets, the MDGs seek to reduce by two thirds the under-5 mortality rate in children, and the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015. Achieving and maintaining high immunization coverage against vaccine-preventable diseases is an important strategy for achieving these MDGs.

Some of the Region's gains in immunization activities include:

- remaining polio-free despite the continued threat from wild poliovirus importation;
- reducing measles cases by 96% between 1974 and 2010, with 25 countries and areas believed to have either eliminated or nearly eliminated measles ahead of the 2012 goal; and
- reducing chronic hepatitis B infection rates to less than 2% among 5-year-old children in 26 countries and areas, which comprise 87% of the Region's population.

But despite these gains, more needs to be done to reach every child as millions of dollars are being spent each year across the Region on the care of children whose illnesses could have been prevented.

"Many of our successes are at risk of being lost if we do not continue to invest in effective immunization programmes," said Dr Shin Young-soo, WHO Regional Director for the Western Pacific. "Continued commitment is vital if our successes are to be sustained and our efforts expanded so that no one is left unprotected."

Thirty-one countries in the Region have committed to be part of the first Regional Vaccination Week, which will now become an annual regional initiative. The event seeks to promote vaccination activities, including educating parents and caregivers, about the importance of vaccination in protecting children and all people from birth onwards.