Look to Indonesia to see why we vaccinate our children

Burnet Institute

26 July, 2017

Image: Young Indonesian baby (Pixaway,com)

By Helen Evans.

In wealthy countries like Australia it’s easy to forget why we vaccinate our children. Immunisation has been so successful that few of us can remember the horrors of the diseases they prevent. This is one reason why we are now once again seeing outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough.

However, for some of our regional neighbours, it’s a very different story. As a former Deputy Head of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, I regularly visited immunisation programs in places like Indonesia and watched as parents in rural villages stood patiently in long queues outside health clinics, sometimes having walked long distances, so keen were they to see that their children were protected through immunisation.

This stark contrast is due to the fact that parents in Indonesia know only too well how dangerous these diseases can be. Measles kills more than 134,000 people a year worldwide, or 15 deaths every hour – mostly children under five years – with the risk of dying increasing for children living in poverty. The good news is that measles vaccinations between 2000-2015 have prevented more than 20 million deaths. However, because it is highly contagious, immunisation coverage for measles needs to be high; when coverage drops below 95 per cent outbreaks will occur.

Similarly, for millions of mothers and their children in developing countries, rubella (also known as German measles) poses a serious and ongoing threat. While the infection itself is mild, if a pregnant woman is infected with rubella particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy, the risk of the virus passing to the fetus is extremely high. This can lead to babies being born with severe disabilities including blindness, deafness, heart problems and intellectual impairment. It can also result in stillbirths.

Yet for less than a dollar per child these diseases can be easily prevented with a safe and effective vaccine. That’s why the Indonesian government’s support for the combined measles-rubella (MR) vaccine will be a game changer in fighting these infections. This landmark campaign which commences from the beginning of August aims to vaccinate nearly 70 million children, aged between nine months and 15 years, and replace the measles vaccine in the routine immunisation schedule.

The World Health Organization has a goal to eliminate measles from most parts of the world by 2020, with south-east Asian health ministers affirming this commitment in September 2013. That is a task that will be made all the more difficult if parents hesitate about whether or not to have their children vaccinated. This hesitancy continues to undermine vaccination coverage in countries like Australia but can also affect neighbouring countries. Just a few years ago evidence emerged that cases of measles had been exported from Europe to poorer countries in Latin America, countries that at the time had previously eliminated the disease and where higher levels of malnutrition and limited healthcare make the virus far more lethal.

The Australian government is doing its part, by introducing tougher measures to encourage parents to have their children vaccinated. But the onus is also on all of us, to step up efforts on the home front to control and eliminate these preventable diseases by vaccinating our children.

Helen Evans is special advisor to the CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, in the Asia-Pacific region and Burnet Institute Board member.

This article originally appeared in The Age newspaper.

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