Public health in crisis as childhood vaccine-preventable diseases re-emerge
As the European Immunization Week unfolds (22-27 April 2013), it is worth to re-emphasise immunization as a cost-effective public health preventive measure. It is particularly true in times of economic crisis and public spending cuts affecting essential health services needed to prevent the re-emergence of communicable diseases in Europe (and elsewhere).
On an annual basis, for one week in April, all countries across the European Region unite under the European Immunization Week’s slogan – Prevent. Protect. Immunize – and organise activities to inform and engage key target audiences and to address challenges regarding immunization. The goal is to increase vaccination coverage by raising awareness of the importance of immunization.
Later in the year, WHO/Europe plans to hold a workshop for EIW focal points from all countries in the Region, the first such gathering since 2008.
"Before the introduction of routine childhood vaccination, infectious diseases were the leading cause of child death globally. Even today these diseases cause suffering and death, with measles, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), pertussis and neonatal tetanus being the prominent killers among vaccine-preventable diseases. Every year, 10.6 million children die before the age of five years; 1.4 million of these are due to diseases that could have been prevented by vaccines. Taking into account both children and adults, vaccine-preventable diseases kill 3 million people around the world every year [WHO estimates, 2009]" stated the World Health Organization.
In the 21st century, every child - regardless of his background - has the right to live free from vaccine-preventable diseases. Yet these diseases still pose significant threats in the WHO European Region as some countries fail to protect their children, in particular children of certain background as the Roma, migrants or homeless.
Re-emerging outbreaks occur alongside (or as a consequence of) failing public health systems due to severe cuts imposed by governments in order to bring down public spending. Another element that triggers disease outbreaks is insufficient coverage attained in the past due to vaccine safety fears in some countries of the Region (a so-called critical mass not reached to sustain herd immunity - WHO target coverage of 95%).
The number of measles deaths decreased globally by 71% between 2000 and 2011, according to new data released by WHO headquarters. Having said that, despite this global achievement, during 2010–2011 measles incidence increased and large measles outbreaks were reported in several countries, including in the WHO European Region.
The initiative comes of particular importance given the recent measles outbreak in Wales where almost 900 people were infected over a course of just a couple of weeks.
Opening the European Immunization Week, Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe said that “considering the human costs of measles, a preventable disease that can lead to long-term health complications and even death, we cannot afford to be complacent." She also argued that “ achieving high vaccination coverage costs considerably less than an outbreak of measles, and economically, as well as medically, it makes no sense at all to wait for measles to strike when we have the means to eliminate this disease.”
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