This week as we observe World Immunisation Week themed ‘Vaccines work, Do your part’, we highlight the collective action needed to ensure that every person is protected from vaccine-preventable diseases yet many of us may not be familiar with the importance of being immunised against infectious diseases that can be fatal.
Immunisation is providing protection against an infectious disease by introducing to the body a preventive antigen or immunogen, in the form of a vaccine which is either the killed or altered form of the bacteria or virus. This vaccine is responsible for ensuring the body produces the fighting mechanism, i.e. antibodies protecting against subsequent exposure to the disease or infection.
The diseases caused by these viruses and bacteria have not been eradicated, they still exist, and in this era, where a person can travel across the globe in a day, the risks of exposure and transmission is much higher than anticipated.
All vaccines contain a certain amount of the virus or bacteria to protect against. This triggers the body’s defense mechanism in readiness to fight the virus or bacteria should the person get exposed to it. Generally, vaccines are much safer, and the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks of the infection by the bacteria or virus. The short-term and long-term complications of the infection are much higher than any known side effects of vaccination.
The Ministry of health since 1980’s, through the Kenya Expanded Programme on Immunisation (KEPI), has enabled the country to immunise children and antenatal women to curb six childhood disease, i.e. Tuberculosis, Whooping cough, Tetanus, Polio, Measles, and Diphtheria, and protect against neonatal tetanus respectively. This is a crucial step to ensure our nation has healthy individuals and prevent the economic and social loses due to the vaccine-preventable diseases.
Immunisation has a significant impact on the well-being of an entire family and the country at large. When a person of the household is infected, chances of passing the infection unknowingly to other family members is very high especially children including neighbours.
In addition to the above vaccines, there are additional vaccines that protect against diseases like Rota Virus that causes diarrhoea and the Flu vaccine that protects against influenza which is highly recommended for the elderly and children.
During the 2017 National Immunisation Stakeholders Meeting by the Ministry of Health, it was indicated that eight out of every ten children are fully vaccinated before their first birthday which has significantly reduced cases of childhood vaccine preventable diseases like polio, meascles, diarrhoea among others.
The stakeholders namely Ministry of Health, Kenya, United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI), United States Agency for International Development (USAID), World Health Organization (WHO) and Clinton Health Access initiative (CHAI) are working together to ensure that every child is immunised especially in the urban informal settlements, where the prevalence of unvaccinated children is higher. Each one of us, can make a difference, by educating one another and encouraging each other to prevent loss of lives by achieving universal immunisation.
Vulnerable individuals such as people living with HIV/ AIDS, or cancer patients, whose immune system is compromised, can significantly benefit from these vaccinations by consultation with their healthcare provider to avert possible infections and communicable diseases. Immunisation is essential for infants and the elderly as they are at higher risk of serious infections, however, vaccine-preventable diseases can affect anyone and therefore it is crucial to stay protected. In the US, approximately 50,000 adults die annually due to vaccine-preventable disease and not HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, or road traffic accidents.
Just like eating healthy food, doing regular exercise and going for screening for colon and breast cancer, it is important to follow the recommended vaccinations for your age group and aim to prevent diseases that are preventable. After all ‘prevention is better than cure’.
By Dr Jaimini Gohil, Chief Pharmacist, Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi