We need to remind ourselves that vaccines save lives
By Sue Desmond-Hellmann
April 27, 2018 Updated: April 29, 2018 5:21pm
If there is anything more heartbreaking than the death of a child, it is the preventable death of a child. Sambang Juwara knows how this feels from bitter personal experience. In 2011, at just one month and 10 days old, the daughter she describes as her “star” died of pneumonia.
Pneumonia, an infection that causes fever, chest pain, fatigue and difficulty breathing, is the No. 1 killer of children under age 5 in the world today — taking almost a million lives every year. Yet it is a disease that is preventable with a series of simple injections.
“I carried that child for nine months, then helplessly watched her die in my hands because she was not protected,” said Sambang, who lives in a small village in The Gambia.
We all should take a moment to recognize that it’s not just in the developing world where children suffer needlessly, and that science has proved — time and again — the effectiveness of life-saving vaccines.
Here in the United States, there were almost 18,000 cases of whooping cough reported in 2016, a disease easily prevented with a vaccine. To make sure everyone benefits from vaccines, there are challenges to overcome.
Challenge 1: While we have vaccines for measles, pneumonia, polio and whooping cough, we still don’t have them for deadly and debilitating diseases, such as malaria and HIV. That is why the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is supporting entrepreneurs and startups such as CureVac and Moderna, which are exploring advances in genetics and molecular science that are likely to make it cheaper, easier and faster to develop vaccines. Last week, we also launched a $12 million partnership to develop a universal influenza vaccine to protect against all strains of the virus.
Challenge 2: When vaccines are available, it is hard to get them to people in remote areas. Inadequate health-care systems, poor infrastructure, access to reliable data, lack of governance and competing demands for scarce resources are all factors. Creative public, private and philanthropic partnerships can help — especially to drive down the cost of vaccines. For example, in 2016 UNICEF negotiated to halve the price of a vaccine that prevents diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and a strain of influenza to just 84 cents a dose. This means tens of millions more children protected, and savings of $366 million for donors and governments.
Challenge 3: Despite overwhelming, strong and conclusive evidence of the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, some people remain unconvinced of the benefits of immunization. As vaccine programs succeed and memories fade of the seriousness of disease, some people are becoming more susceptible to fears about the vaccines than they are about the diseases they prevent. For example, political and religious leaders in three states in northern Nigeria brought the polio immunization campaign to a halt in 2003 by falsely claiming the vaccine could be contaminated with anti-fertility agents, HIV and cancer. In the United States and Europe, much of the modern anti-vaccine movement can be traced to a fraudulent 1998 paper published in a scientific journal that suggested a link between vaccines and autism. The study was subsequently retracted but its devastating consequences remain.
The scientific community must take some responsibility for this state of affairs. As scientists, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of transparency when sharing new scientific information, and honesty about what we know for certain versus what we believe to be correct right now. Take the fact that cases of mumps have been on the rise in the United States among 18- to 22-year-olds, most of whom were vaccinated as children. We’ve discovered that immunity wanes over time in some people, leading to recommendations for a booster shot for some.
This doesn’t mean that the vaccine is ineffective. But scientists and public health professionals need to understand how such developments lead some to question the overall value of vaccines. We need to respond quickly and do so by speaking like regular people speaking to regular people.
In that spirit, as a physician, scientist and public health advocate, I say: There is no doubt approved vaccines save lives. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, take Sambang’s. After her daughter’s death, she made sure that all her other children were vaccinated.
“That makes me happy,” she says. “The regret is what pushes me.”
Sue Desmond-Hellmann is CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the former chancellor of UCSF.
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