WASHINGTON - The Pan American Health Organization aims to get 70 million people in the Americas and the Caribbean vaccinated this week as part of the U.N.-designated World Immunization Week.
Dr. Flavia Bustreo worked for years at the World Health Organization and for GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance. She says, “Immunization and vaccines are the most powerful public health tools that we have.”
WATCH: WHO Urges Everyone: Make Vaccines a Priority
Imagine, she says, how many lives could have been saved if a vaccine for AIDS were available in the 1980s, when doctors discovered the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS.
Between April 24 and April 30, the U.N. wants everyone to be aware that vaccines save millions of lives each year, from the very young to the very old. It’s encouraging governments to invest in immunization efforts, telling advocates to make vaccines a priority, and urging people to get themselves and their families vaccinated.
Only in humans
According to the WHO, close to 13 million children have lost their lives to diseases in the last 35 years — lives that might have been saved if these children had been vaccinated.
Measles is a disease that exists only in humans, not in the wild. It’s highly contagious and can cause blindness, deafness and intellectual disabilities, yet many parents are concerned that the vaccine could harm their children, even though study after study shows the vaccine is safe.
Other parents don’t vaccinate their children because they have never experienced how sick measles can make their children. In 2017, measles killed 35 people, mostly children in Europe. In Italy, there were 3,232 cases of measles from January through June, while in 2016, there were only 478 in the same time period.
While global measles deaths have decreased 84 percent worldwide in recent years — from 550,100 deaths in 2000 to 89,780 in 2016 — the WHO reports that measles is still common in some developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia.
Comeback for measles?
Measles has now been eradicated from the Americas, but with the number of parents who don’t immunize their children, there is growing concern that the highly contagious disease could make a comeback.
The WHO reports that immunization rates in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina are as low as 40 percent in some areas and continuing to decline, increasing the risk of larger outbreaks.
Bustreo says when children are not vaccinated, it affects their health and the health of others.
“We need to have vaccination coverage that is about 90 percent in order to have what we call the “herd effect” … which means you cover the children who are vaccinated, but also, because of the reduction of transmission of infections, you also cover the children that are not vaccinated,” she says.
Vaccines exist for many other deadly diseases as well. The WHO aims to vaccinate as many as 1 billion people from 27 high-risk African countries by the year 2026 against yellow fever — a mosquito-borne disease that can be fatal.
Misinformation in Brazil
On the VOA program Africa 54, Dr. Ken Redcross told viewers, “It’s fatal because it can cause liver failure. It can cause kidney failure. It can even cause what’s called a coagulopathy, which is a long word to mean that it causes a problem with our blood clotting.”
In Brazil, efforts to vaccinate up to 24 million people against the disease have fallen short because some fear the vaccine is unsafe. Officials have been trying to counter this misinformation. Red Cross says not only is the vaccine safe, it’s also highly effective. “It confers 90 percent immunity. And that’s huge as a vaccine goes,” Redcross says.
Brazilian public health authorities announced in early 2017 an outbreak of yellow fever in several eastern states of Brazil, including areas where yellow fever was not traditionally considered to be a risk. Since the end of 2017, yellow fever cases have reoccurred in several states, including areas close to the city of Sao Paulo.
Yellow fever in U.S.
On its website, the Florida Department of Health says yellow fever was a major public health concern in the U.S. and was responsible for several large outbreaks in Florida during the 1700s and 1800s.
The mosquito that transmits yellow fever is in the southern U.S. With international travel, there’s concern that yellow fever could again become a major public health concern in the U.S.
The WHO is urging countries to strengthen routine immunizations. Among its goals by the year 2020: to complete international efforts to end polio, which now exists in only three countries, thanks to a highly effective vaccine. The WHO also wants to control more vaccine-preventable diseases and develop new vaccines for HIV and other diseases that still plague the modern world.