Friday, April 19, 2013

Needles can be fun

By Christopher de Bono, Regional Communication Advisor, UNICEF East Asia and Pacific
© UNICEF/IDSA2010-00629/JOSH ESTEY
The day my daughter received her infant vaccinations is firmly burnt into my memory.  In truth it wasn’t much fun.  She was still very much a baby - this was the first time we had exposed her to something that we knew would cause her pain, and this caused me real anguish. One of the first of many really important but difficult decisions a parent must make.

Several medical professionals in our families explained to us why immunizations are necessary. As they were family, they began with the benefits for my child and only once we were convinced, moved on to the public health benefits.  So we were able to overcome the innate parental resistance to exposing your child to something that may make her cry, and the furious, but wrong, anti-vaccination propaganda that some people feel obliged to propagate.

It was a difficult step – even a scary one. I remember finishing the day with a tension headache but also with a glow of adult pride, because I understood that by immunizing my daughter I was investing in her health and her future well-being.

My daughter is now a beautiful, smart and healthy 16 year old. When I look at her now it is almost impossible to imagine what a different course her life would have taken had she suffered any of the ghastly grab bag of diseases that immunization protects against.

Almost impossible to imagine… but not impossible. I can imagine it. In my work with UNICEF I have seen the suffering of children who live, for reasons beyond their control, outside the safety net that vaccinations provide.   I know the ghastly truth that even in 2013, one out of five children in the world is unprotected against diseases that can destroy her (or his) health, her well-being and even her future prospects.

Immunization is one of the most successful public health initiatives developed so far.  Every single year, some 3 million deaths are averted because children are immunized from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles - diseases that disproportionately affect children -.

A student Sengsavanh 12 years old receives a measles vaccination
© UNICEF/LAOA2007-5905/JIM HOLMES
Studies show that an immunized child stands a far better chance of being healthy and performing better in school, is likely to earn a higher income as an adult, and will probably even raise healthier children when she becomes a parent in her own right.

Every child who is not immunized is vulnerable. At UNICEF we believe that it is not acceptable to fail to provide even a single child with the vaccines that can protect them against life threatening diseases.

If we can maximize the use of existing vaccines in the world’s poorest 72 countries we would save 6.4 million lives, avert US$6.2 billion in health treatment costs and save US $145 billion in productivity losses between now and 2020.

Immunization is not expensive. One dose of the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine costs, on average, US 20 cents….  – the three doses that are needed cost 60 cents. A life-saving dose of measles vaccine costs US 24 cents, yet measles continues to kill about 430 children every day.

As a parent I know that all children face risks – it is part of growing up.  I am not arguing for a risk free childhood. But the idea that millions of children are exposed to diseases that can kill them – diseases that are preventable at minimal cost and with no risk to the child  -- is horrible. These children are walking a tightrope …with hand grenades in their pockets. We can watch them with our fingers crossed. Or we can help them find solid ground on which to stand, and fill their pockets with brighter prospects.

No brainer -- we need to help these children.
UNICEF and its partners must to talk to their parents, their communities and governments to make them understand that immunization is about giving children a better future… in some cases, it’s about simply making sure they have a future.

We need to provide vaccines for those who can’t afford them, and help deliver these vaccines to those places health systems still don’t reach. And we need to train community health workers so they can administer the vaccines.  All it takes is a little money, a little expertise and a decision to act. Please help.

******** Vaccine-preventable childhood diseases******************
Diphtheria is a serious disease caused by a poison made by bacteria. It causes a thick coating in the back of the nose or throat that makes it hard to breathe or swallow. It can be deadly.

Hepatitis B is a serious infection that affects the liver.

Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) can cause severe pneumonia, meningitis and other serious diseases almost exclusively in children under the age of 5.

Measles is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by a virus. Measles causes fever, runny nose, cough and rashes all over the body. About one in 20 children with measles also gets pneumonia. For every 1,000 children who get measles, one or two will die.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly contagious respiratory disease, which produces violent, uncontrollable coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. Pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies less than 1 year of age.

Pneumococcal disease can cause pneumonia, meningitis, or blood infection. In its worst forms, pneumococcal disease kills one in three people who contract it.

Polio (poliomyelitis) mainly affects children under five years old. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis. Among those paralyzed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe diarrhea in infants and young children. Globally, it causes more than half a million deaths each year in children under 5.

Children whose mothers have rubella during the early stages of pregnancy often contract congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Children with CRS are born with lifelong disabilities and are at risk for other developmental problems such as congenital heart disease and mental retardation.

Mothers and newborns contract tetanus, an extremely deadly and paralyzing disease, when deliveries happen in unhygienic conditions – as can be the case in remote and underdeveloped areas.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a disease that typically attacks the lungs. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal.

Yellow fever is found in tropical climates and is transmitted to humans by the bite of an infected mosquito. Illness ranges in severity from a self-limited febrile illness to severe liver disease with bleeding. Up to 50% of people who develop severe illness and are not treated may die.

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