Society’s best defence against childhood diseases is waning. What needs to be done to help it recover?
Author: Michael Eisenstein
Vaccines offer a potent armour against infectious diseases that once carried a heavy toll of mortality and morbidity, particularly among children. Gaps were already forming in that armour in the years before the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid stagnating vaccination rates, the pandemic acted like a shotgun, punching many more holes in humanity’s defences against preventable diseases such as measles.
The risks of allowing these infections to flourish are clear. Zimbabwe is currently working to contain a huge measles outbreak that claimed the lives of more than 750 children between April and October. And poliovirus has recently re-emerged in the United States after decades of successful elimination, prompting a state of emergency in New York.
The drop in vaccination rates is partly a direct consequence of the pandemic itself, which caused severe interruptions in public-health services and diverted resources. But it isn’t simply a crisis of access to vaccines. The failures and inequities in the global public-health response, coupled with politicization of the pandemic, have also undermined confidence in the institutions and people that coordinate and conduct immunization efforts.
As a result, global vaccination rates have hit their lowest point since 2008 — and getting back on track could be difficult. “We’re talking about tens of millions of lives that are at stake,” says Kate O’Brien, who heads the immunization programme at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. Rebuilding the trust lost during the pandemic will be a crucial step in pushing back against the global spread of otherwise preventable diseases.