WORLD IMMUNISATION WEEK

Immunity beyond Covid-19: The importance of vaccines

In Summary

• Vaccination will protect us from other diseases during Covid-19

Immunisation week graphic
Immunisation week graphic
Image: COURTESY

“Vaccines are one of our most important tools for preventing and keeping the world safe. While most children today are being vaccinated, far too many are left behind.” —Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus 

According to the World Health Organisation, vaccination is a simple, safe, and effective way of protecting people against harmful diseases, before they come into contact with them. Basically, it is a way of producing an immune response in the body without causing illness. Vaccines protect people for years, decades and some for life.

Immunisation on the other hand is the actual process where a person is made immune or resistant to a communicable disease by the administration of a vaccine. It is one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions and this explains why there is a whole week set aside annually to highlight the collective action needed to ensure that every person is protected from vaccine- preventable diseases.

24- 30 April is the World Immunization Week. This year’s theme #VaccinesWorkForAll, focused on how vaccines, the people who develop them, deliver and receive them are heroes, because collectively, their efforts protect the health of everyone everywhere. Also, this year nurses and midwives are being celebrated for, among other things, the role they play as vaccine champions for all parents.

WHO in its 2020 World Immunization Week Campaign aimed at demonstrating the value of vaccines and their role in building the health of children, communities and the world at large. The campaign also outlined the importance of immunization as a foundation for robust health systems, and attainment of universal health coverage. WHO highlighted the importance of building immunization progress while addressing gaps such as low investments in vaccine research and development.

2-3 million lives are saved every year from more than 20 life threatening diseases that can be prevented by immunization these include; polio, meningitis, rotavirus and many others. When children are vaccinated against such diseases, they are given a chance to lead healthy lives from childhood to old age. However, not all children around the world receive vital vaccinations. In the year 2018, WHO estimated that about 20 million children worldwide missed out on life saving vaccines. These are children from countries that are vulnerable due to conflicts and poverty and those countries with fragile health systems.

Although to-date only smallpox has been eliminated globally by the efforts of vaccination, the world cannot ignore notable success such as reduction of polio cases by 99.9% and reduction of measles mortality by 73% among many others. This goes to prove how important research and development of vaccines is.

The current COVID-19 pandemic risks interfering with the efforts the world has made towards strengthening immunization progress. In the quest of keeping safe from infection, parents and guardians are avoiding to take their children for their vaccination shots. This might trigger resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in countries. A good illustration of this is the measles outbreak that occurred in DRC during the Ebola pandemic causing more than 6,000 deaths.

It is important even during emergencies to carry on with immunization which is an essential health service. The last thing the world, most especially countries with fragile health systems, needs is to fight another pandemic on top of COVID-19. Should another disease emerge health systems that are already struggling to fight COVID-19 would be weakened further.

As a way of addressing the disruption of the routine immunization activities as well as countering the possibility of vaccine-preventable disease resurgence, WHO on March 26, 2020 released interim Guiding Principles for Immunization Activities During the COVID-19 Pandemic. One key goal of these guidelines is to protect unnecessary loss of life from those diseases which vaccines already exist.

WHO is calling upon countries to protect immunization services in order to minimize disease outbreaks and loss of life. It   recommends that governments temporarily pause preventative immunization campaigns where there is no active outbreak of a vaccine-preventative disease, but at the same time urges governments to prioritize the continuation of routine immunization [by adopting unique immunization delivery strategies] of children as well as adult vaccinations such as influenza for groups most at risk.

Countries should fortify the governance and leadership of national immunization programs; they should also expand immunisation services beyond infancy and diversify to older age groups. This way preventable diseases will be kept at bay while fighting those that do not yet have vaccines such as COVID-19.

The writer is an advocate of the High Court