Let’s tell one and all that – Vaccines are safe!
In many parts of the world, diseases such as – measles, diphtheria, hepatitis, mumps, pertussis and others are on the rise. The situation is alarming not only in still developing countries like India but in many developed countries of the Europe, United Kingdom and even the United States.
The sad part is that these diseases can be easily prevented by taking timely vaccines, provided by the government, absolutely free of cost.
The World Immunization week ran from 24 to 30 April, however it was silenced and overshadowed by the election debates. There was no noise about it despite the fact that vaccines or precisely not getting them in time can actually affect a whole generation of children.
Public confidence and faith in vaccines has seen an unusual decline in the recent times. So much so that vaccine hesitancy now figures in the list of top 10 threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organization.
Even though vaccines are clearly the most effective of tools in protecting and saving lives, the number of people wary of getting their children vaccinated is clearly on the rise. The measles outbreak in the US, where between January 1 and March 28, 387 people contracted measles in 15 US states, shows how misinformation can harm not just those who do not get vaccines, but also other vulnerable children who get exposed to the contagious virus through such unvaccinated children.
The world scenario is serious, if we look at figures, Ukraine is suffering through a measles outbreak that began in 2017. The country has had almost 70,000 cases — more than any other country in recent years. Madagascar has seen 66,000 cases of measles, with more than 900 dead. India has had 63,000 cases; Pakistan, 31,000; Yemen, 12,000; Brazil, 10,000; and Venezuela, 5,700.
Scenario in India
In India, about 2.9 million children have missed out on the first dose of measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017 despite over 80 per cent of immunization coverage, according to the UNICEF.
According to the WHO, there were 7,097 reported cases of diphtheria all over the world in 2016, out of which 3,380 cases were in India. Both of these diseases are preventable and could have been avoided through timely vaccinations.
How do vaccines work and why every child in the community needs it?
According to the national health portal of GOI, Immunization is the process whereby a person is made immune or resistant to an infectious disease, typically by the administration of a vaccine. Immunization helps protect the child from life threatening diseases. It also helps reduce the spread of disease to others. The vaccines administered during immunization, use a small amount of killed or attenuated, (weakened enough to not cause any disease) viruses or bacterias, to prevent the spread of infection by that same virus or bacteria.
When one is injected with a weakened form of a disease, the body’s immune system reacts by either producing antibodies to fight that illness or enhancing immunity so the illness does not affect the body.
If a person is ever again exposed to the actual disease-causing organism, his immune system is well equipped to fight it.
Vaccines are very effective in fighting infectious diseases. this is the reason why when an outbreak happens, it is usually triggered by those who were not vaccinated.
In order for vaccines to work successfully, every child in the community needs to get it. Successful campaigns usually require 95 percent or more of a population to be vaccinated to protect everyone.
How the anti-vax movement began?
The anti-vax movement began when a false claim was made by British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield about a link between vaccines and autism, in a later retracted 1998 paper. Reportedly driven by financial gains, Wakefield fudged important data and allegedly abused developmentally delayed children. Though his U.K. medical license was revoked in 2010 for unethical behavior, misconduct and dishonesty, he and many like him are still running profitable campaigns against vaccines by promoting films and online web content to dissuade confused and ill informed parents.
The times of social media and internet instead of helping have actually regressed health campaigns where diseases like measles that were long declared eliminated have resurfaced.
Myths to be busted
First myth is clearly that the diseases are not serious and people do not get them anymore. When actually most of these diseases are very serious and can cause major complications or even death.
In India, from the days when polio was being seriously targeted, health workers faced people who thought that the vaccine will cause infertility. The more recent one that MMR vaccine causes autism has triggered the measles outbreak around the world.
Approach for the future
To begin with we should have constant dialogue around how vaccines are developed and how they actually work to make people understand how the immune system works. This can happen in schools, in parent-teacher meetings to bust any myths around these topics.
Secondly, the information disseminated should be in a language and context that can be easily understood by the general public and not too technical. Medics being too aware of such subjects often forget that the information is for a layman and that is why much of the information currently available, online and elsewhere, needs medical training to decipher.
On the other hand, those criticizing these vaccines are very good at communicating ideas using simple terms and language.
Schools should mandatorily hold classes to educate children so they can go home and inform their parents about vaccines being safe. This will avert cases such as the one in Delhi where the court recently ordered “express consent of a parent is necessary before administering the measles and rubella vaccine during vaccination drive to be held in schools here.” The court’s remark came after the Delhi government said there was no need to indicate risks of the vaccine as it could discourage people.
“Vaccination is the best bet in Public Health. We should expand our focus beyond infant/pregnant woman to a life-cycle approach. School going children and Adolescents should also get their due vaccinations in time” says Dr. Bhupendra Tripathi, Country Lead – Routine Immunization & Neglected Tropical Diseases, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in India.
The best part is that the Indian government already has a policy in place to provide the necessary vaccinations free of cost.
“Education, WCD and PRI departments need to join hands with the Health department to achieve high vaccination coverage with equity. We can reduce Vaccine Preventable Diseases, if the community understands its importance and demands immunization from providers in-time”, added Dr Tripathi.
Mission Indradhanush for Immunization
To further intensify the immunization programme, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Intensified Mission Indradhanush (IMI) on October 8, 2017 after the Mission was launched in 2014.
According to the national health portal, earlier the increase in full immunization coverage was 1% per year which has increased to 6.7% per year through the first two phases of Mission Indradhanush. Four phases of Mission Indradhanush have been conducted till August 2017 and more than 2.53 crore children and 68 lakh pregnant women have been vaccinated.
The nation is currently witnessing a very vibrant election season where all sorts of subjects are being discussed. Sadly, public health does not figure as a very important issue in election campaigns or speeches.
Public messaging on health and to educate the public around diseases, especially those easily preventable through timely vaccinations, should be an important mandate for governments, both at the centre and state.
Lets hope the drive and commitment to vaccines continues with public health missions even with the next government, should it change this May.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.