Routine childhood immunisation is probably the most important reason why, across the world, the death rate amongst pre-school children has been greatly reduced over the past number of decades. The aim of World Immunisation Week from 24-30 April is to promote the use of vaccines, which are cost-effective and successful in preventing communicable diseases that can cause disability and death.
There is currently a flood of anti-vaxxer information spreading on social media. Most of this information is unsupported by any real facts. In higher-income countries, there have been outbreaks of childhood diseases which have not occurred in decades and the gains that have been made are being threatened. Because people no longer see cases of these diseases, due to vaccine coverage, the memory of the suffering is buried in the past.
In other countries, health services are not covering the population effectively. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly 20 million of the world’s children are unvaccinated or under-vaccinated. Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, diphtheria (whooping cough) and polio occur mostly in poor communities and those affected by conflict. South Africa is among the ten countries in the world with the lowest rate of childhood immunisation.
Let’s have a look at measles – a common childhood disease that spreads very fast from person to person and is generally seen as not very serious. Children can, however, die from measles, especially babies under two years old. Complications include infection of the brain and blindness. During the early 1960s, measles was responsible for around 2.6 million deaths every year but these deaths have dropped dramatically since infants have been routinely immunised against the disease.
However, in 2018 the WHO reported that cases of measles had increased by nearly 50% from the year before and were responsible for around 136 000 deaths. This included an outbreak in Madagascar in September where, by February 2019, there had been more than 900 deaths.
Polio, which ravaged the world in the 1950s, is a terrible disease causing muscle paralysis. If it is not fatal, it leads to irreversible muscle damage which leaves the child crippled for life. Through immunisation, polio has nearly been eradicated across the globe – from 350 000 cases in 1988 to only 33 in 2018.
So it’s clear that immunisation has had a major impact on reducing disease, disability and death. The theme of immunization week this year is “Protected Together – Vaccines Work”. You can also take action by helping to spread the word that vaccines are important to protect us all and to ensure that you and your children get the necessary vaccinations. Childhood immunisations are available for free at local clinics.