By Sreya Salim:
Anti-vaccination movements are almost as old as the vaccines themselves. Ever since Edward Jenner conducted his historic experiment, a number of arguments have been put forth against immunisation programs. Time and again, all these statements have been proven to be unequivocally false by modern science. Yet, propaganda against immunisation still continues in different parts of the world.
The latest news is from Kerala, a state which can boast of a well-developed health system and the highest literacy rate. Northern Kerala is witnessing a slow re-emergence of once eradicated diseases, due to false propaganda against immunisation.
Statistics show that from 2008 to 2015, 20-35 children have died from vaccine preventable diseases in Malappuram, alone. This includes deaths due to tetanus, diphtheria, and measles. Recently, a diphtheria epidemic has broken out in the region. In the last one month alone, 25 patients have been admitted due to diphtheria in Calicut Medical College, out of which, two have died. All of them were fully or partially unimmunised. Doctors are of the opinion that the disease could have been avoided completely, had the children been vaccinated.
Any health worker in Northern Kerala would testify that a large number of people, especially those belonging to Malappuram district, have been rejecting vaccinations to their children based on unscientific grounds. The region has become the epicentre of a powerful anti-vaccination propaganda headed by some religious groups and practitioners of alternative medicine. The claims made, range from vaccines causing autism, paralysis, and infertility to the government forming tie-ups with multi-national companies. Rejection of vaccines based on religious grounds is also not uncommon. Since most of the people have no access to reliable information, they often fall prey to false propaganda. Statistics regarding the risks of vaccination and outdated studies are often exaggerated to spread panic among people. All this is happening, in spite of doctors and scientists emphasising that the risks of immunisation are negligible.
It has been estimated that there are about 1.72 lakh unimmunised children in the 7-15 years age bracket, in the region. This would mean that more than one-third of the children here, are prone to a wide spectrum of preventable diseases ranging from measles to whooping cough and tetanus. Diseases like diphtheria have a carrier state, that is, even a fully immunised person may carry the bacteria in his body without any symptoms. In a community with a large number of people unvaccinated, there is a high chance that another epidemic may break out at any time. It is indeed an irony that this is happening in a state with a high literacy rate, a high density of doctors and modern health care facilities.
The root cause of the problem seems to be that the people are losing faith in the health initiatives of the government. This, along with the lack of reliable information, and the rising number of quacks in Kerala has become a deadly combination. Health workers are of the opinion that grassroot-level awareness programs are needed in order to curb the problem. The government has made immunisation cards mandatory for school admissions. Malappuram and Kasargod have been declared as high-focus areas under mission Indradhanush. Medical students and doctors across the state have also come forward to join hands with the awareness programs.
The foothold gained by the anti-vaccination movements in Kerala point to the importance of proper health education at the grassroot-level. Though “Prevention is better than cure,” is an oft-quoted adage, seldom do we bring this to practice in daily life. It seems that we have to wait until an epidemic breaks out to take some solid steps in the direction of public health. It is indeed time that public health measures rooted in proper awareness and prevention strategies are implemented.