surayaDalilI am glad to say that despite ongoing conflict in my country and the unstable security situation, there is vibrant optimism emerging among Afghani women and children. The latest data from UNICEF shows significant improvements in the health, education and well-being of women and children in Afghanistan. Many Afghans today have better access to water, school attendance is up for both boys and girls, and maternal and child mortality rates are down. There have been unprecedented declines in both maternal mortality and under five mortality rates in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Today, many more Afghan women are receiving skilled care during pregnancy and delivery than a decade ago, and more women and children are surviving than ever before as a result of greater access to health facilities and better care. However, progress has been slower in many areas, such as women's literacy and vaccination coverage. Continuing insecurity in the south eastern part of the country is a major bottleneck for the population to access health services.

Afghanistan still has a high under five mortality rate, with thousands of children dying every year. Many of these are the result of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, pneumococcal disease, rotavirus diarrhoea, and a lack of clean water and sanitation.

Since I became Public Health Minister in 2010, health systems strengthening has remained a high priority. A decade ago, the health systems were in a very weak state and vaccination programmes were very limited, particularly in remote villages in the mountains. We decided, at the Ministry, that if we were going to make a real effort to save the lives of young Afghani children through immunisation, a significant investment would first need to be made to strengthen health systems. I, therefore, made it my personal mission to ensure that more health workers are trained to administer the vaccines and that the cold chain is strengthened.

Afghanistan was delighted to see that in 2009, with support from the GAVI Alliance, we introduced the pentavalent vaccine, protecting our children against five deadly infectious diseases including diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), which causes meningitis. This five-in-one vaccine is incredibly cost-effective and literally saves tens of thousands of young Afghan lives every year.

In January 2011, we were very grateful to hear that the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had each committed US $33 million for immunisation programmes in Afghanistan. GAVI will use the US $66 million to buy and deliver additional supplies of the five-in-one pentavalent vaccine and planned introduction of pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines in Afghanistan. The Crown Prince's donation is a clear example of how investing in immunisation can save the lives of children in the Middle East by protecting them from life-threatening diseases. We are currently in discussions with GAVI to explore the roll out of new pneumococcal and rotavirus vaccines that help protect against pneumonia and diarrhoea, the world's biggest killers of children under five.

During my tenure as Public Health Minister for Afghanistan, I truly hope to see a growing number of young children immunised against preventable childhood killers. This will allow them to not only pursue their dreams, but actively contribute to transforming the country's economic development.