Commercial Affairs Manager, Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare association
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that vaccines save up to three million lives each year1. With the exception of clean, safe drinking water, vaccination is one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions ever, says Vivienne Hough, Commercial Affairs Manager for the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA). This success is increasingly under threat as vaccination uptake rates continue to fall.
Despite the availability of free and effective vaccines, some people make the personal choice not to vaccinate themselves or their children. However, she says, they may not be aware that this choice not to vaccinate has an impact on others by reducing uptake rates, which are needed to protect populations or for ‘herd immunity’.
What is ‘herd immunity’?
Herd immunity occurs when enough people within a population (or herd) have been vaccinated to reach the recommended threshold required to prevent the spread of a disease. When this is achieved, the high coverage makes it difficult for the disease to spread because there are so few people left to infect. This is particularly important for the protection of people who cannot be vaccinated.
This is why a personal choice not to vaccinate has an impact on others. Not only is it a decision that may put one’s own life, and that of one’s child, at risk, but it also puts those who come into contact with an unvaccinated person at risk.
Such contact is particularly dangerous for people with a reduced immune system, pregnant women or small babies who have not yet completed all their vaccinations. People who cannot be vaccinated are vulnerable and depend on others being vaccinated for their own protection.
For example, if a person develops measles, the chances of infecting a baby who is too young to be vaccinated is reduced if everyone else who can be vaccinated (the herd) has been.
Vaccine hesitancy is caused by several elements including misinformation, complacency and varying societal factors. This hesitancy reduces uptake rates and herd immunity.
A direct result of this is an increase in the number of global outbreaks of serious diseases, such as measles. For example, it is estimated that 110,000 people died from measles in 2017. Most of those who died were children under the age of five years. This equates to 301 preventable deaths every day or nearly 13 each hour. Aside from this, measles is a highly infectious and serious disease that can cause chest infections, fits, ear infections, swelling on the brain and brain damage.
They save lives and protect the wider community. It is important that stakeholders in Ireland work together to ensure people make decisions about vaccinations based on facts. This would help reduce vaccine hesitancy, increase uptake rates and herd immunity and dispel damaging myths about vaccination. This will help stop the spread of vaccine preventable diseases.