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Vaccine refusal is deadly negligence

By Alfred Romann | China Daily Global | Updated: 2019-04-15 10:14
[Photo/VCG]

A measles infection grows slowly and then, in small children, it can kill quickly. This is all the more tragic because, for more than half a century, there has been no real reason for anybody to contract the disease.

A vaccine for measles has been around since 1963. Before this, epidemics of measles killed about 2.6 million people a year. In the years since, the numbers of measles-related deaths have plummeted.

Measles is an example of a disease that has been all but eliminated in many places. Others include smallpox, polio and yaws.

This information alone should be enough to convince everyone of the usefulness of vaccines, which makes it even more baffling to see a rising wave of anti-vaccine sentiment around the world-despite decades of proven benefits, thousands of studies and the eradication of entire diseases that have caused untold human suffering.

Misinformation and the occasional quality scandal have given way to doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines. In parts of Southeast Asia, widespread mistrust in the safety of vaccines and concerns about mismanagement (including mislabeling) have led to pushback.

Last year, Indonesia tried to vaccinate about 70 million children, but the Islamic Council derailed the plan after saying the vaccine contained pig components and was not halal, or in conformance with traditional Islamic law. The council later gave the vaccine the green light due to a lack of alternatives, but vaccination rates still plummeted.

In the Philippines, public fears were stoked after a faulty dengue vaccine was distributed. Vaccination rates also fell in Malaysia.

The scandals and scams that make the news understandably shake faith in the value of vaccines.

And yet, vaccines save lives. Experience and huge amounts of research back this up.

At the beginning, the measles morbillivirus seems mild enough. The virus grows in the body for a couple of weeks with almost no symptoms. It then surfaces as a mild fever, a cough and a runny nose, perhaps a sore throat.

All these symptoms go away after two or three days. The whole thing feels like a cold. Then a rash may appear and spread to the arms and legs. High fevers develop and they can be severe enough to kill children.

A simple vaccine, alone or in combination, can prevent all of this. In 2017, about 85 percent of all the children in the world received a measles vaccination.

The World Health Organization estimated that vaccination prevented more than 21 million measles-related deaths between 2000 and 2017, having reduced the number of cases from about 545,000 to 110,000 in the same period.

Still, outbreaks of measles have been on the world news since last year. Pockets of unvaccinated people have fed the outbreaks in places as disparate as Australia, Italy, Germany, the United States, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines and Japan.

Many resist vaccination based on misinformation and fear. But the value of vaccines is evident in the experience of just about everyone.

The question, then, is whether governments should have some kind of mandatory (or highly encouraged) vaccination program.

The answer, from any rational standpoint, is a resounding "yes".

Anyone walking around with a virus that can kill and is unwilling, without an obvious reason, to protect themselves and everyone else with a simple vaccine is not dissimilar to a drunken driver, negligent in the extreme. Deadly negligent.

The author is managing director of Hong Kong-based Bahati Ltd, an editorial services consultancy. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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