Pierre Van Damme
Professor in Vaccinology, University of Antwerp, Belgium
Vaccination – one of the greatest and most cost-effective global health achievements – saves five lives every minute. It has led to the global elimination of smallpox, reduced global child mortality rates, and prevented countless lifelong disabilities such as paralysis from polio.
So, why are we seeing more and more outbreaks of viral diseases, despite widespread vaccination programs?
Take measles, for example. In the US, vaccination led to the total eradication of measles by 2000. Yet in 2019, 1,282 cases were confirmed in 31 states; the highest number since 1992. It’s a similar story elsewhere. In the UK, measles cases are now higher than in the 1990s. Globally in 2019, over 400,000 confirmed cases of measles were reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 187 countries.
Part of the answer lies in the erroneous and often dangerous ideas about vaccination that circulate so much faster in our connected, social media world. In addition, there are generations that no longer know what infectious diseases are and what they can cause. To combat these false narratives, and make clear what vaccines can prevent, there is an urgent need for accurate, clear and concise communication of the scientific aspects and societal advantages of vaccination.
With this objective in mind, in 2019 the One Health Platform initiated VAXVOX, a scientific reference point on vaccination-related issues. It aims to spread scientific core messages and thereby raise a solid, united voice in the debate about vaccination.
Affirming the urgency for further vaccination against polio
One focus areas is polio, an infectious viral disease that targets mostly children under the age of five. One in 200 infections leads to paralysis, which can be of the limbs or, more seriously, of the respiratory muscles which can result in death.
In the early 20th century, polio was one of the most feared diseases in industrialised countries, paralysing hundreds of thousands of children every year. The tide turned in the 1950s when two polio vaccines were developed, by Jonas Salk (1955) and Albert Sabin (1961).
Polio was brought under control and was practically eliminated as a public health problem in the industrialised world. However, it still remained a major health problem in developing countries, where 350,000 children were contracting polio annually. This led to the WHO launching its Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988.
The hugely successful initiative has led to nearly 3 billion children being immunised against polio in the last 30 years. It is estimated that around 18 million people are able to walk today who would otherwise have been paralysed. An estimated 1.5 million children would otherwise have died as a consequence of catching polio. In four of the WHO regions, polio has been officially declared eliminated: the Americas (1994), Western Pacific (2000), Europe (2002) and most recently South-East Asia (2014).
The final, knock-out blow to polio and a new vaccine
However, until the polio virus is totally eradicated, there remains a risk of a major outbreak that could result in as many as 200,000 new cases each year over the whole world.
Unfortunately, stamping out the last strongholds of the polio virus – mainly in Afghanistan and Pakistan – is proving extremely challenging. These last polio-affected regions are often plagued by political instability and conflict, mass population movement, poor healthcare infrastructures, and the inaccessibility of some remote areas. Combined, these make it very difficult for healthcare workers to reach and vaccinate the populations at risk.
To secure a future free of polio, the WHO has launched its Polio Endgame Strategy 2019-2023. It’s a multi-strategy approach that includes the accelerated development of a new, genetically engineered vaccine. Its deployment could happen as early as June 2020 under the WHO’s emergency protocols.
VAXVOX is fully behind the WHO strategy and we will do all we can to communicate the key scientific messages underlying the use of vaccination to help ensure a world where no child contracts polio ever again.