The US should work to promote vaccines around the world
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Not long ago, parents in the U.S. found themselves helpless in the face of infant death from tetanus; blindness from measles; and hospitalization from rotavirus. Today we are blessed with some 15 different vaccines to prevent these diseases and more. Each year, they save the lives of millions of children and adults around the world. Let’s not roll back this clock.

It’s important to remember every infection prevented is one that needs no treatment. Vaccines are at the frontline of defense against outbreaks and pandemics, antibiotic resistance and global poverty. But many global health professionals fear a U.S. retreat from the world, with sharp cuts in foreign assistance influence, leadership and funding, will harm health security in the U.S. and abroad. This week, World Immunization Week, is a time to renew American commitment to vaccine discovery and distribution.

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Some infectious diseases and illnesses need no more than access to clean water and sanitation (still lacking in many parts of the world). For others, vaccines provide protection so antibiotics are unnecessary. The role of vaccines is critical. Many common antibiotics we’ve come to rely on are no longer effective. Overuse and misuse as a cure-all have moved their effectiveness back to a time before antibiotics existed. Drug resistance knows no borders. In 1990, at least 18 large pharmaceutical companies were actively developing antibiotics. Today, there are four. With few antibiotics in development public health is moving backwards.

 

While new antibiotics are declining, important new vaccines are on the horizon. The 2014 Ebola outbreak killed 11,000 Africans and crossed into Europe and the U.S.; however, it did reinvigorate vaccine funding and led to a vaccine with 100 percent protection against Ebola. HIV may be next. PEPFAR, (U.S. AIDS relief), working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is funding a breakthrough in the long sought HIV vaccine, which could replace the need for costly, lifelong drugs with side effects.

But the greatest success is eradication. We’ve eradicated small pox and polio could be next. Over 13,800 cases of paralytic polio struck youth in the U.S. alone in 1955, the year the Salk vaccine was introduced; but just 37 wild polio cases were documented globally in 2016, and so far only five in 2017. Today 10 million people are walking who otherwise would not be. No longer must parents helplessly watch their children’s limbs shrivel and become useless.

Important progress has been made to make vaccines affordable too. For example, meningitis can cause severe brain damage and is often deadly, but thanks to the Meningitis Vaccine Project (MVP) which resulted in the development of an affordable vaccine, over 150 million people were vaccinated in just three years in Africa, where the disease is endemic. The number of suspected cases immediately plummeted as a result of this vaccine that costs less than 50 cents per dose. The MVP is a success story.

As is Tetanus. Tetanus vaccine had been introduced in 103 countries by late 2014, and now 83 percent of newborns are protected from it. By that same year, most of the world’s children had been vaccinated against measles, which causes blindness, brain damage and death. In 43 African countries measles vaccine has reduced the confirmed cases to less than one child in a million.

Diseases know no borders. Poliovirus is still out there, but much of the world is now inoculated against it. The measles vaccine is so effective that measles had been entirely eliminated from the Western Hemisphere. Yet a 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland infected 127 children, and it was attributed to vaccination rates as low as 50 percent in communities where the cases occurred. Preventable diseases – like measles and whooping cough – have re-emerged in the U.S.

These outbreaks are likely a consequence of the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. Some parents fear vaccines cause autism. (They do not.) Often misinformation comes from an exaggeration or misrepresentation of research, but sometimes it takes the form of outright fraud.

Religious objectors say common vaccines are the byproduct of aborted fetuses. In truth, fetal embryo cells were obtained in the 1960s from two elective terminations, and they were used to grow viruses to make vaccines. These same cells have been grown in laboratories for decades; no other fetal cells are in use. Religious leaders, including those in the Catholic Church, have said this should not deter parents from vaccinating their children.

In 2005, the Vatican issued a paper entitled Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses. The paper stated that the administration of vaccines was morally acceptable, and while alternative techniques should be sought, current vaccines can and should be used to avoid “significant risks to their health” and “indirectly the [health of the] population as a whole.”

False information has also proliferated in developing countries. Immunization success requires implementers in these countries—non-governmental organizations, faith-based organizations, healthcare fieldworkers and faith leaders. Vaccination work is not without risks. Public-private support is essential for workers to safely reach vulnerable populations.

Diminishing vaccination rates is a preventable tragedy. It’s among the reasons global health and development professionals are deeply concerned about the White House proposal to eviscerate the foreign affairs budget by 32 percent and eliminate USAID, and cut NIH and CDC budgets. It’s dangerous to public health, global health, and a price no American should be asked to pay.

As Leith Anderson and Galen Carey of the National Association of Evangelicals wrote,"As much as we may want to hunker down and focus on domestic concerns, this is an option our interconnected, globalized world doesn’t afford us."

Richard A. Lane, MD, MPH&TM, FACPM is the Director of the Master of Public Health Program at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.