Immunization is one of the world’s most successful medical breakthroughs1, but its success is coming at a price. Some diseases that had almost been wiped out in the Western world are starting to reappear when people fail to get vaccinated. Unless people continue to protect themselves, these diseases can re-emerge. While cases of measles deaths worldwide dropped by 84% between 2000 and 2016, largely thanks to vaccination,2 there were four times as many cases of measles in Europea in 2017 as the previous year – over 20,000, resulting in 35 deaths, according to the WHO.3.4
In 2018, the headlines keep coming. In France, a woman, 32, died from measles after contracting the disease when she accompanied her father to an A&E department in a hospital in January. She was not vaccinated. The WHO declared that the UK had "eliminated measles" for first time in 2017, but in March this year a measles outbreak was declared in South Wales.b, c
The theme of this year’s World Immunization Week is ‘Protected Together’, #VaccinesWork – by vaccinating yourself you are also protecting those around you.
Building Herd Immunity
When most people in an area or country are vaccinated against a certain disease, this results in herd immunity. This means that particular disease is unlikely to occur in that area, so those who cannot be immunized, perhaps because they are too young, pregnant or undergoing chemotherapy, can also be protected. If immunization rates drop too low, there is no herd immunity and unvaccinated people are put at risk. Vaccination doesn’t only protect you, it’s also vital to help protect your friends, family, and community.
In 2003, a mother and journalist living in South London found out her baby son Toby had measles. He was just eight months old. She said: “I had always planned to have him fully vaccinated, but MMR vaccinations normally take place at one year old, so he was too young to be vaccinated at the time he was infected. I took him to the doctor because he had a rash and I couldn’t believe it when she told me he had measles - I thought measles was an old-fashioned illness that no one caught any more. The doctor explained that there had been several cases in my area because vaccination rates among children had fallen. Fortunately Toby recovered well but not all children are so lucky – measles can be very serious. It was very upsetting seeing him so ill – it seemed so unnecessary.”
Why Immunization Matters Now More Than Ever
While confidence in vaccinations is rising in Africa and Asia, it is falling in Western countries, especially in Europe, according to a 2016 study of almost 66,000 people by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.5 Lack of confidence in vaccines, despite rigorous testing and few contraindications, can lead to people failing to be vaccinated and outbreaks of disease.
Dr Zsuzana Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe said: “The WHO European Region has made tremendous progress in strengthening immunization programmes and protecting people of all ages from vaccine-preventable diseases. Of the 53 countries in the Region, 33 have successfully eliminated measles and 33 have eliminated rubella”...”European Immunization Week is not only a time to reflect on our successes, but also to highlight the steps needed to close the remaining immunization gaps. We need dedicated action to identify and address the root causes of vulnerability in our Region that allow outbreaks to persist. Over 20 000 measles cases in 2017 were a dramatic warning that we have not done enough. Over the last decades, we have benefitted from vaccines as a safe, accessible and effective public health intervention. However, every missed vaccination is a missed opportunity to stop the spread of disease and protect the most vulnerable. I personally urge every individual to take responsibility to vaccinate, so that we can together protect ourselves and those around us.”
Vaccinations Aren’t Just for Babies
When a baby is born, he or she may have some immunity from certain diseases passed on from the mother – but this doesn’t last for long. Even before becoming pregnant, it’s important to check that you have had the MMR vaccination to protect your developing baby as contracting rubella during pregnancy can cause deafness, heart defects and other problems.6 Getting a flu vaccine will help ensure you stay fit and well during your pregnancy, as well as reducing the chances of your new born baby catching flu.
By the time your child is one year old, any immunity you have passed on will have faded. By ensuring your children have their routine childhood vaccinations, you are protecting them against infectious diseases for which vaccination may be recommended. Don’t forget to get booster vaccinations when they start day care or school when they’re more likely to be exposed to infection. This will not only protect your child, but also any younger siblings, family and friends.
And vaccinations should not stop there. Teenagers on school campuses and other groups living in close proximity to each other are particularly at risk. Meningococcal diseases are very serious illnesses which can often be avoided through vaccination. Around 10 to 15% of people who contract a meningococcal disease will die from it, and up to 10 to 20% may suffer permanent damage to their health.7 Thanks to vaccination, incidence of meningococcal disease fell to 372 cases in the USA in 2016, but these cases resulted in 49 unnecessary deaths.8 And in the UK, certain strains of meningococcal disease caused by the type C disease have fallen by over 90% in immunized people since a vaccine was introduced in 1999.9
Continue Protecting Yourself
Even as you age, the protection provided by vaccinations remains vital. Diseases such as flu, shingles, and pneumococcal diseases can be much more serious in elderly people, especially those suffering from conditions such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease.
World Immunization Week this year underscores the message that a vaccination for you is also a vaccination for the worldwide community.
- WHO. Meningococcal vaccines: WHO Position Paper: November 2011. Weekly Epidemiological Records. 2011, Vol. 47, pp. 521‐540.
[i] WHO. Chapter 1: Smallpox. Bugs, Drugs and Smoke. 2011: 5.
[ii] WHO. 10 facts on polio eradication. [Online] April 2017/ [Cited January 2018] http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/polio/en/