The case for vaccination | Sunday Observer

The case for vaccination

Giving injection to boy
Giving injection to boy

Our bodies have to protect us from myriad threats from micro-organisms. Sometimes the body succeeds in the fight against these microbes, but sometimes it does not. This is how we get communicable diseases. From a simple flu to life heartening diseases, tiny organisms cause a range of diseases.

When our body gains the ability to fight back certain disease, we call it immunity. It can be naturally acquired, but it can also be induced. This is what a vaccine does. Vaccination is the administration of a vaccine to help the immune system develop protection from a disease. Vaccines contain a microorganism in a weakened or killed state, or proteins or toxins from the organism. In stimulating the body’s adaptive immunity, they help prevent sickness from an infectious disease.

Vaccination is not a new idea at all. Even in ancient times, physicians knew that certain people who had contracted various diseases did not get it or related diseases later on. But the use of modern vaccines dates back to 1796, when Edward Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine. He followed up his observation that milkmaids who had previously caught cowpox did not later catch smallpox by showing that inoculated cowpox protected against inoculated smallpox.

Over the 18th and 19th centuries, systematic implementation of mass smallpox immunization culminated in its global eradication in 1979. Louis Pasteur’s experiments spearheaded the development of live attenuated cholera vaccine and inactivated anthrax vaccine in humans (1897 and 1904, respectively). Plague vaccine was also invented in the late 19th Century. Between 1890 and 1950, bacterial vaccine development proliferated, including the Bacillis-Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccination, which is still in use today. Viral tissue culture methods developed from 1950-1985, and led to the advent of the Salk (inactivated) polio vaccine and the Sabin (live attenuated oral) polio vaccine. Mass polio immunisation has now eradicated the disease from many regions around the world.

Most Sri Lankans carry the scars of vaccination on their upper arms. Most of these vaccinations are given for childhood diseases, some of which can appear later on in life as well. Sri Lanka has conducted one of the most successful vaccination programs in the developing world, with the assistance of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the United Nations. This has saved thousands of children’s lives, as previously deadly or debilitating diseases could now be prevented. In fact, Sri Lanka has eliminated diseases for which vaccines were not even available, such as Malaria, thanks to her excellent free healthcare system.

Worldwide, vaccination has potentially saved millions of lives, especially, in Africa and Asia. Every year, around three million lives are saved globally due to vaccination. Most vaccines are now inexpensive and can be administered at any hospital, public or private. They can also be administered on an ad-hoc basis, such as getting the rabies vaccine after a dog has bitten a person.

But there has been a strong anti-vaccination campaign in several parts of the world, based on ethical, religious and certain other grounds. Some have expressed fears that vaccination could lead to conditions such as autism, though this has not been conclusively proved. This is a worrying trend that threatens global public health. One argument against vaccines is that many companies use aborted fetal cells for the manufacture of vaccines.

However, health authorities say vaccines obtained through whatever method are essential to safeguard public health and safety. This issue came into focus through a high-profile lawsuit in the US where an unvaccinated student is fighting against an expulsion order from his school. He has since lost his legal struggle.

The senior student at Assumption Academy in Boone County sued the Northern Kentucky Independent District Board of Health after it banned students without chickenpox immunity from attending school and extracurricular activities during a measles outbreak. Jerome Kunkel, 18, was ‘devastated’ by the ruling, said his lawyer, Christopher Wiest of Covington, Kentucky. Jeff Mando, who represented the health department, said the ruling “upheld the health department’s mission to protect public health and the welfare of folks in Northern Kentucky.”

“This is not a case of religious discrimination,” Mando said. “Instead, it presents this question: Do unvaccinated students at Assumption have the right to attend school, play basketball and attend other extracurricular activities in the face of an outbreak of a very serious and infectious disease at the school?”

Meanwhile, the top official of Rockland County, New York, USA, took a major step this week in response to a serious measles outbreak -- he banned unvaccinated children from public places for 30 days. Violating parents could be criminally charged with a misdemeanour and would be vulnerable to fines and jail time.

After all, measles is a serious disease that can lead to severe complications or death. It is extremely contagious -- the most contagious virus known. There is an extremely effective, safe vaccine against measles. There should be no debate about using this vaccine, because it can save lives.

The anti-vaccine movement has gained momentum in recent times, partly thanks to the spread of misinformation via social media. Anti-vaccination ‘fake news’ being spread on social media is fueling a rise in measles cases and a decline in vaccination uptake, the head of England’s National Health Service (NHS) has warned. Simon Stevens said “vaccination deniers” are gaining traction through their use of social media platforms including Instagram, What’s App and YouTube. Anti-vaccination groups frequently use social media platforms to spread conspiracy theories or misinformation about vaccine use, despite the fact that such theories have been conclusively debunked by the medical community.

This week, YouTube removed commercials from videos that promote anti-vaccination ideas. Facebook too plans to remove anti-vaccine posts from its site.

Vaccine hesitancy is one of the biggest threats to global health in 2019 according to the World Health Organization. “Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease -- it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” WHO said. Unfortunately, the world has seen a spike in the spread of several diseases as parents and children increasingly stay away from vaccines.

Governments and health services must counter the spread of misinformation on vaccines at every turn.

The benefits of vaccination far outweigh the disadvantages, if any. Sri Lankan health authorities must take a proactive stand in support of vaccination before this wave of misinformation reaches our shores via the Internet and social media.

In the meantime, undeterred by the fake news regarding vaccines, scientists around the world are doing research on a number of new vaccines for a range of diseases including HIV, Malaria, Influenza, and Leukemia. These efforts are likely to succeed in the next few years, with the potential to save millions of more lives. Fake news must not be allowed to ruin this progress.