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April 25, 2019

Say yes to vaccination


April 25, 2019

Unicef is increasingly worried about the survival of children whose parents reject routine vaccinations. More than eight million children in South Asia are not getting all the vaccines that they need. The result is frightening.

Every year, children are dying from deadly outbreaks of diseases that could have been prevented, like measles. In 2018, we saw more than 100,000 new measles cases in South Asia.

In recent years we have progressed well on vaccinations. In most South Asian countries, vaccinations of children have reached high or even very high levels. Millions of lives have been saved.

As a result of the successful measles campaign held in Pakistan during 2018, a substantial decrease in the number of cases has been recorded during the early weeks of the current year.

However, what we see now is that progress is stagnant. In South Asia, like in other regions of the world, vocal anti-vaccine activists are now making untruthful claims about the safety of vaccines. They question the value of vaccines.

During the measles campaign in Pakistan, the well-educated urban elite of Karachi and Islamabad showed strong resistance against vaccination, also misguided by medical professionals who propagated that additional doses were not needed. One of the ways to counter this was a robust social media campaign highlighting the impact of vaccine resistance in Europe and the US, which resulted in measles outbreak.

In the Maldives, people who are influential on social media have repeatedly spread fake information about the content of vaccines in order to create fear. This fake information clearly has an impact on some parents who hesitate to vaccinate their child or outright refuse because they do not trust the benefits.

Nevertheless, the scientific evidence is clear: vaccines are effective and help save lives. They work. Globally, vaccines prevent 2-3 million deaths every year. Not being vaccinated is risky for children, and for the community. Horrible, life-threatening diseases that are otherwise effectively prevented through vaccination include diphtheria and pneumonia. And if a child gets measles, it risks acute inflammation of the brain in serious cases that will likely result in death. Every parent who chooses not to vaccinate their children puts their own child – and others – at risk of death and disabilities which can affect them for life.

To save lives, it is important that parents are well-informed, motivated and take action to seek out vaccines for their children. They should value immunization as both a right and as a collective responsibility.

At the same time, health services also need to earn the trust of parents. The vaccinator and the vaccine must be available on the day parents bring their child to the clinic, and they need to be treated with respect and get answers to concern they might have.

Parents can do a lot themselves:

First, seek information for yourself about vaccines and when your child is due for vaccination from credible sources, such as your health professional or the website of the national immunization programme.

Second, get involved in the discussion. Use social media to make your positive views heard about vaccination. Talk about the quality of service you received when you took your child to be vaccinated – and how your child is now protected and why it is important for other children to be protected as well. We need to build a strong social movement among everyone who cares about the health and well-being of our children. This is the only way to counter fake information and rumours, and to build lasting confidence in the many advantages of vaccination.

Third, and most importantly of all, vaccinate your children, with confidence and with pride – knowing that you are taking the best possible action to protect the health of your child and your community.

The writer is regional director of Unicef in South Asia.

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