Immunizing the public against disease has always been a challenging line of work, but in some cases it has become increasingly deadly.
As World Immunization Week begins Wednesday, humans have much to celebrate. More children than ever are getting routine vaccinations – a record 116 million in 2017, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Aid workers scouring the globe have effectively snuffed out smallpox and have come close to eradicating diseases such as diphtheria, polio and malaria – saving countless lives in the process.
But health workers are also fighting a disturbing trend of misinformation that urges people to avoid vaccination. That has created an echo chamber of fear and ignorance and, in some rural areas or less-developed countries, violence as well. Such resistance, in turn, has delayed target dates for eliminating diseases including measles, rubella and maternal and neonatal tetanus, the WHO reports, noting that children living in poor, marginalized areas are most affected.
Ignorance, fear and violence
In early April, a health worker in Pakistan was shot outside a home as he attempted to talk the family into vaccinating their child against polio. And late last year in the same country, two aid workers were gunned down as they were on a vaccine drive.
In Democratic Republic of Congo, a doctor administering what looks to be a highly effective vaccine against the Ebola virus was attacked and killed just last week. Health centers in the affected eastern part of the country have become targets of violence, thanks to rumors that Ebola – which has killed 833 people since the outbreak was declared last August – was concocted by government officials in Kinshasa, the DRC capital.
A top Red Cross official says he's "more concerned than I have ever been" about the possible regional spread of the Ebola virus in Congo after a recent spike in cases.
Emanuele Capobianco spoke by phone ahead of a key World Health Organization meeting in Geneva later Friday about whether to declare the Ebola outbreak in northeastern Congo an international health emergency.
Capobianco, head of health and care at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, cited Congolese health ministry statistics announced on Thursday showing 40 new cases over two days this week.
In the United States, some people oppose vaccinations for religious reasons, while others believe vaccines cause autism or carry debilitating chemicals, which the medical community has said is untrue.
But those who decline to have their children vaccinated are part of the reason for a resurgence of measles cases in the United States. A near-record 626 cases of easily preventable measles have been reported this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said this is the second-highest number of measles cases in the U.S. since the disease was effectively eliminated in the country in 2000.
The number of people who refuse to vaccinate their children is growing thanks to an anti-vaccine grassroots movement that shares information on social media platforms.
The number of people needing humanitarian aid in Congo has increased dramatically in the past year to 13 million and "hunger and malnutrition have reached the highest level on record,'' the head of the U.N. children's agency said Monday.
UNICEF's Executive Director Henrietta Fore told a news conference that 7.5 million of those needing aid are children, including 4 million suffering from acute malnutrition and over 1.4 million from severe acute malnutrition "which means that they are in imminent risk of death.''
The United States is not the only place that has seen an increasing level of mistrust by local populations toward the government leaders pushing information and advocating vaccinations.
Rebecca Martin, who directs the CDC’s Center for Global Health, said she's seeing it happen all over the world.
"Ukraine has had an issue with immunization program” since roughly 2008, Martin told VOA. "… The population has been questioning the value of the measles vaccine and sometimes other vaccines, as well."
Measles is a disease that is only found in humans so it could be completely wiped off the face of the earth. But despite a highly effective and safe vaccine, measles is making a comeback.
In the first three months of this year, the World Health Organization reports that the number of measles cases has tripled over what it was last year.
In Africa, the situation is worse. Africa saw a 700-percent increase compared to last year.
Dr. Anthony Fauci heads the research on infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health.
She said trust is one of the most valuable elements in the fight to get vaccination programs back on track in places from Pakistan to the United States.
Martin stressed the critical nature of ground-level efforts by “health care providers working in the community with their constituents, with their mothers and fathers, to make sure that they talk about the importance of vaccination.” She said such conversations and efforts must “continue every day because it's not a one-time event” to make sure that vaccines are administered.
Information is key
Information is the other key ingredient, Martin said.
Health care workers need to be armed with "data and information" to convince parents of the need for immunization.
Martin remains optimistic despite recent setbacks. As she pointed out, "We only have wild polio virus in three countries: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan." And world health workers are in what they call the final push to eradicate polio in the wild.
Part of the reason why Martin is so upbeat, she said, is that the solution is so simple: "We will only end these outbreaks if we vaccinate, vaccinate and vaccinate."
VOA Africa Division’s Linord Moudou, Mohamed Olad and Paul Alexander contributed to this report.