Africa has experienced tremendous growth in recent years. Ten of the top 20 fastest-growing economies in the world are on the continent, which is expected to maintain a 5% growth rate in 2014. With more than 1 billion people, Africa is central to the world’s future prosperity.

But the spread of disease, especially in areas of extreme conflict, threatens these achievements. Pneumonia and diarrhoea, the two most prolific killers of children under five, weigh heavily on the continent, as do other communicable diseases such as yellow fever and meningitis. Polio is endemic in Nigeria, and millions of African women are at risk of cervical cancer, caused by the human papilloma virus.

All of these diseases can be prevented with vaccines. Immunization has been proven to be the most cost-effective way to achieve better health for all, and is contributing to the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals. Our goal should be to make immunization routine and sustainable. Governments, with their squeezed budgets and on-the-ground challenges outside of their expertise, can’t do this alone.

I have been impressed by the accomplishments of the private sector in advancing global health. One of the most successful public-private partnerships on the African continent is the GAVI Alliance, whose mission is to protect health and save children’s lives by increasing access to immunization in developing countries. Since 2000, GAVI has helped vaccinate more than 440 million children and save six million lives.

It does this by working with both public and private sectors. In the public sphere, it works with donors and governments (including many throughout Africa); in the private sphere, it collaborates with a range of organizations, from technology and pharmaceutical companies to investment banks.

Through this model, GAVI has committed $5.3 billion to African countries over the past dozen years, through more than 130 vaccine introductions and campaigns. Basic vaccination coverage rates in the region increased from 10% in 1980 to 72% in 2012. By introducing MenAfriVac in the “meningitis belt” of sub-Saharan Africa, GAVI has protected 150 million people against meningitis A.

Besides saving lives and improving health, introducing such vaccines has the power to improve economic progress. This is because a healthy population is the cornerstone of a healthy economy. Vaccinating against a disease offers far better value than treating it. By keeping people healthy, vaccines help break the cycle of poverty; they enable children to eat better and go to school, and parents to work more productively. They create the sort of environment that attracts domestic and foreign investment.

Companies recognize that their success depends on the good health of the communities with which they do business. Vaccines have a significant impact on education, labour and the economy, because healthy kids mean healthy families, communities and societies.

In short, global health means economic health – and we all are stakeholders.

This is why companies are investing in the GAVI Alliance, because they know immunization is important for global health. Many are expanding beyond traditional philanthropy and favouring initiatives that make a measurable and long-term impact on individual lives, while at the same time contribute to their commercial success.

GAVI’s private-sector partners offer three important resources: “big skills, big voice and big money”. Three current examples, each of which has had the value of its contribution doubled under the GAVI Matching Fund, are:

  • Vodafone: the company is working with GAVI to deploy mobile health technology in 90 remote facilities in Mozambique. The aim is to increase immunization coverage, reduce drop-out rates and improve vaccine stock management. Mobile technology can help health workers to register, update and search vaccine records, send targeted alerts and reminders to caregivers, monitor vaccine supplies and provide near-instant reports for health workers and managers.
  • Lions Clubs International: the organization has deployed huge networks of volunteers in Africa to help GAVI publicize vaccination programmes.
  • Comic Relief: The charity has highlighted the need to immunize African children to millions in the UK through BBC telethons and through its partnership with British Airways.

I strongly support such private-sector contributions to global health and urge African business leaders to join me. In fact, I am impressed by the growing awareness among corporations that the world’s biggest health challenges – including how to reach the 22 million children who go unvaccinated each year – have profound economic implications.

As business leaders gather at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria this week, I encourage them to think creatively about how their work, too, can be applied to global health. Governments can’t solve these issues alone. If we can collectively seize the moment, create shared value and inspire sustainable social and economic transformation on the African continent – we can push progress towards a world where every child, everywhere, is fully immunized. And we all will be better for it.

Author: The Rt Hon Lord Boateng PC DL, is a lawyer and company director. A member of the UK House of Lords, he was a Labour Member of Parliament between 1987 and 2005, serving in Tony Blair’s administration and in cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury (2002-2005). He returned to Africa in 2005, as British High Commissioner to South Africa (2005-2009). He was brought up in Ghana, where his father served as a Cabinet Minister under Kwame Nkrumah.

Image: A displaced South Sudanese child receives an oral cholera vaccine in a camp for internally displaced people in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Tomping, Juba February 28, 2014. REUTERS/Andreea Campeanu