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Experts Stress Use of Vaccines in Controlling Chronic Disease

  • Mariama Diallo

Health experts at the recent U.N. General Assembly in New York focused attention on new ways to combat the rise of non-communicable diseases, or NCDs, including some caused by infectious diseases that could be prevented with vaccines. That connection adds new urgency to the worldwide drive to immunize.

Every 20 seconds, a child dies of a vaccine-preventable disease. That's why health experts say vaccines are essential and the best investment in health. Seth Berkley is the CEO of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership promoting immunizations for children around the world. He attended this year’s U.N. summit on non-communicable diseases in New York.

“A number of what we call NCDs turn out to be infectious diseases. About 20 percent of cancer is actually caused by infectious agents. We’ve had a lot of success getting rid of hepatitis B, which is the largest cause of liver cancer and we are hoping with the Human Papilloma Virus [HPV vaccine] to be able to get rid of cervical cancer,” Berkley said.

Berkley also says his organization is rolling out some new vaccines to combat the two most common causes of childhood deaths: pneumonia and diarrhea.

“The rotavirus vaccine: the largest cause of viral diarrhea in the developing world, the pneumococcal vaccine which works against the bacteria the pneumococcus, which not only causes pneumonia one of the largest killers in the developing world and can also cause meningitis,” Berkley said.

The privately-funded United Nations Foundation is promoting a campaign called “Shot at Life,” to expand access to vaccines to children in developing countries - where more than two million children die before their fifth birthday because they do not get the immunizations they need. David Meltzer, a senior vice president at the American Red Cross, says measles alone kill more than 150,000 children around the world every year including some in the United States.

“In the U.S., measles were eliminated and turned to the history books in the 60s and 70s. So it has been out of the minds of many Americans. Yet as recently as 2000, over 700,000 children were dying every year from measles,” Meltzer said.

Meltzer says people in the United States, including some parents, who connect vaccinating children to autism are wrong.

“The belief that measles vaccine somehow causes autism, that’s a theory that numerous academic and scientific studies have debunke,” Meltzer said.

Errol Alden, the CEO of the American Academy of Pediatricians, says the belief that vaccines cause autism only adds to the challenges of getting people vaccinated.

“The first is the supply. How do we get the vaccine to the countries, how do we setup a system that can give the immunizations. Number two: there are very many myths, falsehoods that spread very quickly about the vaccines and many of those are just not true,” Alden said.

The World Health Organization says expanding access to vaccines can prevent 1.7 million deaths each year.