Timely vaccination, saviour in disguise

Timely vaccination, saviour in disguise

Vaccines are one of the most important and effective inventions in the domain of public healthcare. The world was introduced to vaccines more than 50 years ago. Since then, they have not only helped mankind eradicate deadly diseases such as smallpox, that once caused millions of deaths, but also played a major role in preventing common infections, epidemics, and even some types of cancers.

Vaccines trigger the body's immune system by introducing a foreign agent (an inactivated bacterium or a virus that cannot reproduce and cause symptoms) into the body. This way, when the immune system encounters a disease-causing agent, its memory cells respond faster in controlling the infection by producing antibodies. Without vaccines, the body's immune system may take up to several days to respond, which could often prove fatal, like in the case of measles or whooping cough.

Vaccines are not only important from an individual perspective but are also of social value as they prevent the outbreak of serious illnesses. The Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) launched in 1985 by the Government of India was initially launched with the aim of preventing six seriously crippling and fatal diseases, including poliomyelitis, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, mumps and measles. India was declared as "a polio-free" nation by the WHO in 2014 as the last known case of polio was reported in 2011.

The government under its UIP initiative has been providing many vaccines free of cost to the entire population for over 30 years now. The development and delivery of immunisation have successfully led to a vast decline in infant and child mortality rates in India.

Newer vaccines have been added to the UIP regularly and the programme now covers 12 vaccinations for all children as part of their immunisation chart. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and the measles-rubella vaccine are latest inclusions to the programme.

The medical fraternity is faced with a continued challenge of combating new strains of bacteria and viruses that are often resistant to common drugs. As part of the 'Innovate in India' mission, the government is encouraging innovations and promoting research to develop newer and more effective vaccines. The UIP also regulates and addresses gaps in cold-chain management by using an electronic vaccine intelligence network (eVIN) that has more than 10,500 vaccine storage points under it.

The government launched 'Mission Indradhanush' which aims to cover those children by 2020 who are either not vaccinated or are partially vaccinated against seven preventable diseases: diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, measles and hepatitis B. The first round of the first phase started from April 7, 2015 (World Health Day).

Current scenario

Even with such a vast network in place and continued efforts by the government, many Indian children are still falling prey to preventable diseases. It is because every child in the country is not being vaccinated as per the standard prescribed schedule.

Many myths and lack of knowledge are preventing people from utilising the benefits of this health intervention. The government, therefore, has made it mandatory for every hospital and primary healthcare centre under its regulation to conduct regular immunisation drives once a week.

There are many "multi-purpose health workers" and "social
health activists" who go about promoting and canvassing the benefits of this immunisation programme among rural communities. In this light, it is very important to eliminate myths and misnomers related to religious beliefs, and boost the level of understanding of people about immunisation and its importance in saving lives.

Vaccines are important for the overall well-being of children and protect them against many life-threatening ailments. Maintaining an immunisation record can prevent not only prolonged illness but also heavy financial burden on a family.

At a social level, vaccines help in protecting communities from epidemics and communicable disease outbreaks, thus alleviating economic and social cost burdens. Persistent efforts on a larger scale help wipe out serious diseases and prevent them from resurfacing.

The nation is now preparing to act on the government's directive to bring immunisation cover up to 90% by 2018. And this is only possible through continued efforts and by creating greater awareness to dispel vaccine hesitancy and the lack of knowledge among communities.

(The writer is head of the clinical advisory board, healthi)

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