We need to get lifesaving vaccinations back on track

Infectious diseases have been in the headlines again lately.

Polio has occurred in New York State, the United Kingdom and Israel. Toronto had an outbreak of meningitis. The Canadian government has issued a warning that travelers are at greater than usual risk of measles. And all over the world we have to deal with monkeypox.

For our society, exhausted by two and a half years of pandemic, the last thing anyone wants is a wave of other infections. But here infections appear like in the classic arcade game Whack-a-Mole.

When there is a pattern, there is usually a cause. In this case, this cause is insufficient vaccination intake.

Vaccines are perhaps the greatest medical innovation we’ve ever seen. While 150 years ago most people died from infectious diseases, today COVID-19 and influenza are the only infections among Canada’s top 10 killers.

Vaccines have played a central role in this; Diseases such as diphtheria, rubella, polio and measles are extremely rare. Smallpox has now been completely eradicated. In addition to the millions of lives saved by vaccination, millions have avoided disabilities such as paralysis (from polio), deafness (from measles), infertility (from mumps), and loss of limbs (from meningococcemia).

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However, almost all people need to be vaccinated to get rid of a contagious disease. If some remain unvaccinated, pathogens can gain a foothold and infection can re-establish itself.

We’ll see that when vaccination coverage falls. When the Soviet Union broke up and vaccination programs were disrupted, it was only a few years before measles, rubella, polio, and whooping cough made a comeback. About 4,000 children died from diphtheria alone.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has done something similar around the world. With school closures, a refocusing of public health efforts, and health systems being overwhelmed — as well as an epidemic of misinformation about vaccines — immunization coverage has fallen. The return of polio, measles and outbreaks of meningitis are the result.

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Fortunately, we can get vaccinations going again. At the beginning, each of us can ask our family doctor whether vaccinations are missing.

Ensuring children catch up on immunizations they may have missed is a top public health priority for the Niagara Region. We have increased staff, are running clinics across the community and will be vaccinating in all elementary schools this school year. We encourage parents and guardians to carefully review vaccination consent documents and contact us with any questions. By next school year we hope that all children will be up to date on vaccinations.

While we did excellently with the first two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine — more than 90 percent of adults got them — less than 60 percent got their third dose. In children, not even half received two doses. With 2022 on track to be the deadliest year of this pandemic, let’s make sure we have COVID-19 vaccinations including a booster shot this fall. Likewise, we should all get vaccinated as influenza is expected to return with intensity as the leading cause of death.

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Finally, COVID-19, monkeypox and the measles travel advisory remind us that infectious diseases respect no borders. Monkeypox was allowed to fester in Africa for 50 years before infecting us. COVID-19 variants have also emerged elsewhere in the world. Protecting ourselves from infection also means we must help the rest of the world get vaccinated and stay protected.

Ultimately, the uptake of vaccinations depends on the choices each of us makes. Last year we showed the world one of the best COVID-19 vaccination campaigns in the world by working together to support one another. Now let’s do the same with all of our life-saving vaccines.

dr M. Mustafa Hirji is the Health Officer (acting) for the Niagara Region

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