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Increasing immunisation for the greater good

Immunisation is the first contact point of a child with health services, thus providing an important link to healthcare at the beginning of life.

Immunisation is the first contact point of a child with health services, thus providing an important link to healthcare at the beginning of life.

Routine immunisation is one of the best public health strategies available to control many infectious diseases.

Indeed, immunisation is the first contact point of a child with health services, thus providing an important link to healthcare at the beginning of life. This preventive service offers every child a chance to have a healthy life from the start.

World Immunisation Week, celebrated in the last week of April, aims to highlight the collective action needed to ensure that each one of us is protected from vaccine-preventable diseases.

This year’s theme is ‘Protected together, #VaccinesWork’. Countries across the globe have worked together to encourage people at every level to go further in their efforts to increase immunisation coverage for the greater good.

The main aims of the campaign are to highlight the importance of immunisation, identify the remaining gaps in global coverage and look at ways to drive vaccine progress.

Many countries have done considerably well when it comes to levels of hygiene, sanitation and clean water but so many doubt if we still need vaccination. We do, as these are important issues but not enough to stop all infectious diseases.

Many infections can spread regardless of how clean we are. If people are not vaccinated, diseases that have become uncommon, such as the whooping cough, polio and measles, will quickly reappear. This is the picture we are already seeing for measles in countries around us in Europe. Only last year, 14,451 cases of measles were reported across 30 countries, compared to 4,600 in the previous 12 months.

Various advances have made vaccines safer. Any licensed vaccine is rigorously tested across multiple phases of trials before it is approved for use and regularly reassessed once it is on the market. There is also continuous monitoring of vaccines for any side effects. These are usually minor reactions, such as a sore arm or mild fever.

Routine immunisation is one of the best public health strategies available to control many infectious diseases

In the rare event a serious side effect is reported, it is immediately investigated. These situations are, however, very rare. Another theory which crosses parents’ minds is that of wouldn’t it be better if we allowed children to acquire an infection naturally.

This is very dangerous. Vaccines interact with the immune system to produce an immune response similar to that produced by the natural infection. However, an essential difference is that vaccines do not cause the disease or put the person at risk of its potential complications, which natural disease can cause.

Some diseases have become quite uncommon in certain countries and hence doubts arise if we should still vaccinate. However, if the disease is still existent globally, then it is important to keep vaccinating. We know that microbes can cross geographical borders and infect anyone who is not protected.

In western Europe, for example, measles outbreaks have occurred in unvaccinated populations in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Tajikistan, the UK and in the US.

In addition to protecting the person who is vaccinated, there is an additional benefit – those who are vaccinated protect those around them if vaccination rates are high enough.

The national schedule provides a combination of vaccines, some of which are simultaneous. Scientific evidence shows that giving several vaccines at the same time has no negative effect on a child’s immune system. Children are exposed to several hundred foreign substances that trigger an immune response every day.

Finally, the issue of the scare that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can be related to autism, which always seems to resurface. This is related to a study which was carried out 20 years ago, which had raised concerns. This study was later found to be seriously flawed and fraudulent, the paper was subsequently retracted by the journal that published it and the researcher was struck off the register to practise as a doctor in the UK.

Unfortunately, its publication set off a panic that led to dropping immunisation rates and subsequent outbreaks of these diseases. Research has consistently shown that there is no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism or autistic disorders.

We know that vaccines have changed the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases. We have an instrument that can help us reduce this burden and many diseases and deaths. Let us make good use of it.

Dr Charmaine Gauci is Superintendent of Public Health.

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