“Can we afford this?”
“What are we getting in return?”
“Is there a better alternative out there?”
These are some of the questions that instinctively pop up in our heads in our individual and national quest to drive a good bargain. But what could be worth more than saving lives?
Governments aim to ensure the welfare of their citizens and better the whole nation. Even within the health sector, the government must make big choices—investing in hospitals or prevention, screening or toilets, ambulance services or nutritious food schemes. The Government of India is committed to achieving universal healthcare but to be successful, it is important to prevent diseases that have the potential to catastrophically impact health and divert resources from other national programmes.
Investing in disease prevention today reaps health, economic, and societal benefits in the future. As a nation, it is critical that we continue to invest in programmes that support our children’s wellbeing, like nutrition, handwashing, sanitation, and immunization. Vaccines are a smart investment, as vaccine-preventable diseases impact so many parts of our lives. Not only does immunization save lives, but it also prevents the devastating costs of hospitalization that may throw families into poverty or exacerbate inequalities.
A recap of recent history shows that the impact of vaccines is indisputable. Take smallpox, for instance – globally this painful and highly infectious disease claimed 300-500 million lives during the 20th century until vaccination led to its eradication in 1980. Polio is another key example – during the 1990s, the highly endemic poliovirus paralyzed 500-1000 Indian children daily. Through fervent Pulse Polio vaccine campaigns driven by public-private partnerships and sustained government efforts, India was certified polio-free in 2014. Similarly, until a few decades ago, 150,000 to 200,000 neonatal tetanus cases were reported every year in the country. The inclusion of the tetanus shot (tetanus toxoid vaccine) as a component of antenatal care contributed to India eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus in 2015. Demonstrated political commitment and strong leadership have been key to tackling the tremendous burden of these diseases.
The benefits of immunization go beyond improving health outcomes. Immunization allows both people and the economy to thrive. Vaccinated children tend to stay in school longer and show long-term productivity gains. A study in rural South Africa showed that, for every five to seven children vaccinated against measles, one full year of schooling was gained among children aged 6-11 years. Also, by averting future illnesses, immunization helps to avoid potentially hefty healthcare costs – not only for the government, but also for families that need to pay for transport, medicines, and food while at the hospital. Fewer child deaths and illnesses mean money saved on medicines, hospitalizations, and parents not missing out on work wages to care for sick children. In fact, for every $1 dollar invested in immunization, $16 is saved in healthcare costs, lost wages and lost productivity due to illnesses.
When many people are impacted by preventable diseases, our national productivity suffers. Healthy children and families, free from the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases, ensure a healthy, productive workforce and help advance our economy. Additionally, when enough people in a community are immunized, the likelihood of transmitting the disease goes down – this helps protect the broader community, including the elderly and children too young or old to be vaccinated, through a phenomenon commonly known as ‘herd protection’.
Despite this, hundreds of thousands of Indian children die annually due to vaccine-preventable diseases. Nearly 9 million children are either partially vaccinated or completely unvaccinated, meaning they miss out on vaccines that could protect them from illness, disability, and death from these diseases.
To make sure all children are protected by essential vaccines, the government’s Universal Immunization Programme (UIP) has been introducing new vaccines to tackle killer diseases such as rotavirus diarrhoea, pneumococcal pneumonia, Japanese encephalitis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, Hib (pneumonia and meningitis), polio, measles, and rubella. In October 2017, the Prime Minister announced an ambitious target of 90% full immunization coverage across India by the end of 2018. But this goal can only be achieved by investing more in immunization. Currently, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – a public-private partnership – provides India with financing and access to low vaccine prices, and helps the Government of India strengthen its immunization programme and health system. Between 2016 and 2021, Gavi has pledged to contribute $500 million to India’s immunization efforts. India will transition out of eligibility for this support after 2021, leaving the government responsible for funding the country’s entire programme.
India has a large youth population, and the government is tasked with the crucial responsibility of giving each child the chance to reach their full potential and go on to contribute to their families, the workforce, and the nation. However, the government should not be sole defender of this endeavour. India’s youth need to be an integral part of this movement by continuously remaining informed and raising awareness on the benefits of immunization. Spread the word on social media, tap into your circles and encourage others to join in the discussion.
Vaccines save lives.