With reference to Editor’s Notebook, June 25: “Don’t Let the Loud Few Sway You on Vaccines.”
As scientists work to find a vaccine for the new coronavirus, it is useful to remind ourselves of the good that vaccines have done in eliminating or reducing the threat of devastating diseases.
Immunizations save millions of lives every year and, along with safe clean water, are widely recognized as one of our most successful and cost-effective health interventions.
Yet outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases continue to put children’s health at risk around the world.
In the early 1950s, the poliovirus arrived in Squamish.
The local hospital had just been opened and it was immediately filled with patients who had contracted polio. What began as a single isolated case with no other cases for two weeks evolved into an estimated 90% of the local population contracting the disease before the outbreak was finished.
Nationwide, an estimated 11,000 people in Canada were left paralyzed by polio between 1949 and 1954.
The disease peaked in 1953 with nearly 9,000 cases and 500 deaths —the most serious national epidemic since the 1918 influenza pandemic.
The widespread application of the Salk vaccine (introduced in 1955) and the Sabin oral vaccine (introduced in 1962) eventually brought polio under control in the early 1970s.
Canada was certified “polio free” in 1994, thanks to vaccines.
I also have a faded scar on my arm from my smallpox vaccination. Smallpox vaccine was available and used in Canada from the early 1800s. Canada’s worst smallpox epidemic was in 1885 when more than 3,000 people died from the disease in the Montreal area. Incidences fell to zero in the mid-1940s with the last case in 1962 when a teenage boy brought the disease home with him after a trip to Brazil.
A reminder that we are not safe anywhere while the virus is somewhere.
Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide in 1979 – the first human disease to ever be eradicated from our planet, thanks to vaccines.
Measles is a highly contagious, serious disease also caused by a virus. Before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963 and widespread vaccination, major epidemics occurred approximately every two to three years and measles caused an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.
From 2000 to 2018, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 23.2 million deaths.
However, measles has recently seen a 30% increase in cases globally and more than 140,000 people died from measles in 2018 — mostly children under the age of five years, despite the availability of a safe and effective vaccine.
In Rotary, we know firsthand that vaccines work. We have been leading the polio eradication effort for 40 years. In 1985 there were 350,000 reported cases of polio in 122 countries around the world.
Last year the number of cases caused by the wild poliovirus was less than 200 in only two counties — Afghanistan and Pakistan. Each year Rotary and our partners immunize 140 million children and have protected nearly three billion from polio.
Today, 19 million people who would otherwise be paralyzed by polio are walking, and 1.5 million people who would otherwise have died are alive.
In January 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that one of the greatest threats to global health is vaccine hesitancy.
In some ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success. Many people think they don’t need to protect themselves or their children anymore, that the diseases eradicated here are now somebody else’s problem in another part of the world.
The current measles outbreaks demonstrate the flaw in this reasoning.
The vaccines we use are proven safe and effective. Any risk from a vaccine pales in comparison to the benefit to the individual and to society.
The scientific evidence is clear: Vaccines are a public health success.
District End Polio chair,
Rotary Club of Squamish