THE BLOG

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Fight To Eradicate Vaccine-Preventable Diseases

11/20/2015 10:25 EST | Updated 11/20/2016 05:12 EST
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It's a bittersweet victory. Just last month, the world achieved the lowest rate of polio infections in history, UNICEF announced. It's all thanks to global vaccination programs.

Sounds epic -- except 2015 should have been the year humanity wiped polio off the planet.

"Unfortunately, over last few years vaccination rates have stagnated," says Dr. Philippe Duclos, senior health advisor with the World Health Organization (WHO) department of immunization, vaccines and biologicals in Geneva.

Last week, the WHO released its annual update on the progress of the Global Vaccination Action Plan (GVAP). It's a worldwide strategy launched in 2012 to eliminate preventable diseases through vaccinations by 2020.

Encouragingly, the goal to introduce new vaccines, and expand coverage of underutilized ones, for diseases like hepatitis B and rotavirus, is well on track. And soon the world may even see a vaccine against the terrifying Ebola virus.

But four out of five objectives for 2015 haven't been achieved, says the report.

This year marks the fourth time in 15 years that the world has missed its target to entirely eradicate polio. Goals for reducing the prevalence of measles and rubella, and increasing vaccination rates against diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus, were also not achieved.

Failing to meet set, and agreed-upon, vaccination goals is common for rich and poor countries alike. What fascinates us is that in the developing world the barriers are tangible (access, funding and poor health systems), while in the West the challenge is psychological.

Lack of funding and supply result in many developing countries running out of critical vaccines. Conflicts like the Syrian war make it harder for immunization programs to reach children. And the health systems in countries like Turkey and Jordan aren't equipped to handle the vaccination needs of millions of refugees.

North America and Europe have stagnant, and in some cases even falling, vaccination rates.

Canada's immunization record for measles fell to 89.6 per cent from 94.5 per cent in the past 15 years, while whooping cough vaccinations rose only a fraction to 77 per cent from 75 per cent. There have been outbreaks of both diseases across Canada in recent years.

The problem is "vaccine hesitancy."

Canadian parents read stories in newspapers and online that allege problems like allergic reactions with vaccines, and hold off getting their children immunized, says Ian Culbert, executive director of the Ottawa-based Canadian Public Health Association, says that

"That creates an opportunity for vaccine-preventable diseases to get a foothold," he adds.

Both Duclos and Culbert agree there's a difference in attitude toward immunization between the developed and developing world. In impoverished communities, the realities of disease are part of everyday life. Parents still see too many tiny corpses riddled with signs of measles, whooping cough or tetanus; they welcome vaccines with open arms.

In the west, we're victims of our own success.

Our health systems are so good; we've forgotten these diseases, even chicken pox, can kill. So when parents hear rumours like vaccines cause autism, they fear possible complications more than they fear the disease -- even though science has soundly refuted almost all concerns about the safety of vaccines, say Duclos and Culbert.

A study released in October by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control found that, of 25 million vaccinations given from 2009 to 2011, only 380 resulted in allergic reactions. And only 33 of those cases were considered serious.

Every time the world misses a vaccine target, we pay for it in human lives -- most often children.

Every country must get on the immunization bus, investing in vaccination programs. And countries like Canada have to look harder at vaccine hesitancy, and how to best communicate the importance and safety of immunization.

It's long past time that polio, measles, and all the other diseases, which can be eradicated with vaccines, joined smallpox in the history books.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day. Visit we.org for more information.