Immunity for Impunity

 
 

Although the Measles is not the mass-killer it used to be, Farouq Manji examines the risk it still poses.

The baby screams. The parents cringe. The nurse smiles and bins the needle. We all hate those shots, but that single measles vaccination has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of children every year.

Measles infects 35 million children worldwide annually. Of these, 345,000 die, mainly in developing countries. Death is often associated with pneumonia, diarrhea and vitamin A deficiency – and those who do survive are often permanently affected by brain damage, blindness or deafness.

Measles is extremely contagious, spreading in the air via tiny aerosol droplets. An exposed, unvaccinated child will most certainly contract it.

This is an alarmingly high mortality for a very preventable virus. The vaccine itself only costs 1 dollar-per-shot, usually administered at 15 months-of-age. Having recognized this, UNICEF implemented an initiative in 2001 to globally reduce measles-related mortality by 90 per cent.

However, the vaccine requires an additional shot or ‘booster’ shortly after. The majority of deaths in developing countries occur due to the absence of the second dose.

An outbreak of measles is particularly cringe-worthy for such a preventable disease, when considering it has a mortality rate between 0.2 percent in developed countries to above 1 percent in developing ones

The current incidence of measles in Ireland is close to zero, however this was not always the case. Reported cases of the disease decreased tremendously upon the introduction of the measles vaccine, from a whopping 10,000 cases in 1985 to 201 cases in 1987. However, measles levels spike every time the vaccination coverage decreases – in 1994 there were 4000 reported cases in Ireland.

An outbreak of measles is particularly cringe-worthy for such a preventable disease, when considering it has a mortality rate between 0.2 percent in developed countries to above 1 percent in developing ones. Put another way, in 1985 more than 200 children would have died in Ireland alone.

The UNICEF initiative is however working – worldwide reported deaths dropped from 873,000 to 345,000 people in 2005. This is largely due to the widespread and thorough vaccination of babies in affected areas – over 500 million children in over fifty countries.

The ultimate goal is to achieve and maintain a minimum vaccination rate of 95% among children everywhere – high enough to achieve a 90 per cent immunity rate and eliminate the spread of disease.

UNICEF’s undertaking is reminiscent of the worldwide fight against polio, an appalling disease which causes deformity, paralysis and death. Prior to the introduction of the Salk Polio vaccine in 1958, 58,000 cases of polio were reported in America alone. In 2001, 575 million children were vaccinated in more than 97 countries – an acknowledgement of Polio’s severity and relative preventability.

Now it only exists in four countries – and they too have decided to undertake a process to eliminate it completely.

The polio initiative serves to underscore the importance and achievability of such an endeavor. Its success, and the gains made in the measles initiative, illustrates the importance of cheap and effective vaccination programs – and the public willingness to support them.

Under these circumstances, cringing parents must agree that the baby crying is a great thing. And hopefully, if we are diligent, soon babies will be crying the world over.

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