Ebola outbreak underscores the immense importance of vaccines

by John Hewko
Friday, 24 October 2014 14:44 GMT

A boy receives polio vaccination during an anti-polio campaign on the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan, August 18, 2014. REUTERS/ Parwiz

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* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Time has never been better to finally eradicate polio - but only if children are vaccinated

I invite anyone sympathetic to the anti-vaccine movement to take in Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech made last week when he accepted an award for his government’s support of the global effort to eradicate polio.

He compared polio to Ebola, the fearsome viral disease that has quickly killed thousands of West Africans and claimed one life and infected at least two people in the United States, sending public health authorities into full alert.

"What has happened recently with Ebola reminds us that in an age of globalization -- and particularly global trade and travel -- what was a problem that was at one time far away from us could arrive at our shores very quickly," he said in receiving the award from Rotary International.

The fact that polio, like Ebola, is only the proverbial plane ride away is why, he said, “we must continue to push people everywhere to understand that (polio) is a threat and to continue with their immunisations, which have been so important in the progress that we’ve made so far.”

To paraphrase for emphasis: Polio, a crippling and sometimes fatal virus, remains a threat to all unvaccinated children, no matter where they live. The only way to truly protect our children against polio – as well as other once common but potentially serious diseases, such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough -- is to make sure every child is vaccinated. Period.

Sadly, the vocal anti-vaccine movement doesn’t agree, and some parents refuse to allow their children to be immunized. Parental refusals in the United States often stem from the misguided belief that immunisations contribute to the rising incidence of autism. This theory has been thoroughly disproven by medical science, yet it persists.

Some parents ask why infants and young children need shots against diseases rarely seen anymore. They completely miss the point that vaccines are largely responsible for the relative rarity of not only polio, but the other childhood diseases we once had no choice but to accept as de facto – and risky -- rites of passage.

And these diseases will return if immunisation rates dip low enough. It’s happening now in California, where an explosion of whooping cough cases has reached epidemic proportions. It’s too early to declare with certainty that the parental refusals are to blame, but an earlier study did conclude that refusals may well have been a factor in a California whooping cough outbreak in 2010.

Common sense dictates that any action that potentially lowers a community’s immunsation level – such as skipping routine vaccinations for invalid reasons -- is dangerous and irresponsible because it puts more children at risk.

BROADER SIGNIFICANCE

And it’s irresponsible too for another, perhaps less obvious reason. It jeopardizes the broader efforts to protect the world’s children from preventable diseases, such as polio.

In Pakistan over the last two years, religious extremists have murdered dozens of the health workers who immunise children with the oral polio vaccine -- the ultimate escalation of a sporadic campaign that has spread rumors and lies to convince parents to say no. Headlines about the anti-vaccination movement here offer false validation to these brutal intimidators, further jeopardizing the health of children, as well as the safety of the vaccinators trying to protect them.

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative -- in which my organization, Rotary International, is a founding partner -- is at a critical juncture. Polio cases have dropped by more than 99 percent since the campaign launched in 1988, from 350,000 cases a year to fewer than 420 in 2013. The time has never been better to make the final push to eradication.

But polio refuses to go quietly, remaining endemic to three countries – Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. From there, the virus can and does re-infect areas where it had been stopped. It is crucially important to reach every child with the polio vaccine as soon as possible. If we back off now, polio can rebound with a vengeance in under-immunised communities worldwide, potentially paralyzing many thousands of children.

Would that every parent who opposes vaccines could visit a community in the developing world where polio remains a threat and see firsthand what is at stake – children and adults with withered arms and legs begging on the streets, with little hope of anything better. This, even though we have had effective polio vaccines for more than half a century.

Unfortunately, we do not yet have a vaccine to stop Ebola. Fast-track efforts are underway, but whether a vaccine can be developed, tested, and distributed widely enough to quell the current outbreak is uncertain.

But Prime Minister Harper’s point is that even though we do not yet have an Ebola vaccine, we do have vaccines to protect our children from polio and a host of other infectious diseases. It is irresponsible to forgo this protection based on disproven theories and rumors.

Parents everywhere must accept the fact that the real threat to our children is posed by diseases – not the vaccines that prevent them.

John Hewko is general secretary of the humanitarian organisation Rotary International.