Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals

New Chair of WHO's principal advisory body on immunization takes office

1 September 2010

Professor Helen Rees, internationally-recognized expert in vaccination and one of South Africa's most well known women scientists, takes over today as the Chair of WHO's leading advisory group on immunization, the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts, or SAGE.

Professor Rees is the founder and Executive Director of the Wits Institute for Sexual and reproductive Health, HIV and Related Diseases of the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, where she is also an Ad Hominem Professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. She is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Infectious and Tropical Diseases of the Clinical Research Unit at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she is also the Health Clark Lecturer for 2010. She is co-chair of South Africa’s National AIDS Council’s Programme Implementing Committee and a member of the National Advisory Group on Immunizations. Professor Rees has a research interest in areas including HIV/AIDS prevention, HIV and human papillomavirus vaccines, and broader issues relating to women’s health.

"Having served as a member of SAGE for the past four years I have come to appreciate the significant global effect that SAGE’s recommendations have made on international health." said Professor Rees, on the first day of her chairmanship. "The continued impact of infectious diseases on the health of all populations and especially on the most vulnerable groups, reminds us that immunization remains one of our most important public health interventions. I am honoured to have been asked to take over the responsibility of chairing this critically important WHO committee, and anticipate that the work of SAGE will continue to grow in importance and utility for the global community that we serve."

"We are delighted to welcome Professor Rees as the new SAGE Chair" said Director of WHO's Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele. "Her extensive experience working on global immunization issues will be a huge asset in this new role."

The change in Chair is in line with established procedures for SAGE, whereby all members, including the Chair, serve for a maximum of two 3-year terms. Professor Rees takes over from Professor David Salisbury, who has served as Chair since 2005, and has now reached the end of his term.

'It has been a great privilege and indeed a pleasure to have served as Chair of SAGE for the last five years, said Professor Salisbury. "During that time we have worked hard to ensure that the recommendations from SAGE have reflected the best possible scientific advice, provided in a context of global immunization that is relevant to all immunization programmes in whatever circumstances. During this period we have covered numerous vaccines, including HPV, rotavirus, pneumococcal, cholera, polio, measles, vaccines given at the same time as treatment for malaria, and of course pandemic influenza vaccines. We have also considered many aspects of immunization including safety, cost-effectiveness and programmatic issues. I take great pride from the work of SAGE as I truly believe that the activities undertaken are contributing to improvements in global public health."

"Professor Salisbury's vast experience and knowledge of the vaccine and immunization field has enabled him to steer SAGE discussions through many complex issues," said Dr Okwo-Bele. "Recommendations made on the introduction of rotavirus and HPV vaccines, and strategic guidance on moving towards polio and measles eradication have provided clarity and direction for all those working to save lives through vaccination."

Wide consultation and thorough preparation of topics

As more vaccines have come onto the market, and funding for public health both at national and international level has become increasingly scarce, the demands and expectations of national policy-makers, donors and other interested parties for evidence-based, independent advice has grown. In view of this, SAGE works extensively with international organizations and alliances, technical agencies, academia, non-governmental organizations, professional organizations, donors and associations of manufacturers of vaccines and immunization technologies. Collaboration extends to organizations working on other aspects of control of diseases such as human papillomavirus, HIV and malaria control. Working groups, established on a time-limited basis, facilitate discussion at full meetings through thorough preparation of specific questions on issues of particular complexity.

Recommendations

Conclusions and recommendations of SAGE meetings are posted in English and French on the Group's web site within two months of each meeting. Translations in Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Spanish follow. When of immediate public health interest, statements are made public very soon after the meeting. Background documents and presentations made at each meeting are also posted on the site.

Next meeting

SAGE faces a challenging workload in the months ahead to prepare for its next meeting, scheduled for 9-11 November in Geneva. Issues for discussion include a programme of work towards establishing a measles eradication goal, financing of immunization in lower-middle-income countries, and recommendations for typhoid vaccination.