By Pam Damoff and Kamal Khera
Members of Parliament
Immunization saves lives! In 1988, 20 children were infected by polio every half hour. Fast forward 30 years to 2018 when just over 30 children were infected by polio during the entire year. Many Canadians have a personal experience with this debilitating disease as it was only a generation ago that polio affected thousands of our parents and grandparents. Soon, polio will be a disease of the past. This is not because polio is curable; it’s not. It’s because we have an effective vaccine that protects children from infection. After decades of intensive eradication efforts, the world is close to making polio, like smallpox before it, history.
From April 24 to 30th 2019, we celebrate World Immunization Week (WIW) to promote the importance of vaccines to keeping children healthy. Immunization is one of the most successful health interventions, saving between 2 and 3 million lives ever year. Immunization is also incredibly cost effective. For every $1 invested in vaccines we see a savings of $16 in healthcare costs, lost wages and productivity due to illness. This year’s WIW theme is Protected Together, #VaccinesWork, highlighting the importance of reaching every last child with vaccines. Canada has an important role to play in promoting immunization at home and globally.
One hundred years ago, infectious diseases were the leading cause of death worldwide, but in the past decades we’ve seen massive reductions in childhood infectious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella due to immunization. In Canada, for example, thanks to country-wide immunization programs, infectious diseases now account for just 5% of all deaths. However, with increasing vaccine-hesitancy and immunization rates dipping in certain pockets of the country, we are at risk of losing real gains made against these preventable diseases. This puts those most vulnerable in our society, our children, our elderly and those with compromised immune systems, at risk.
Every child deserves to survive and thrive, including by enjoying a life free of preventable disease. Because diseases know no borders, to protect all children, including Canadian children, we need to ensure that every child around the world is immunized. That’s why Canada has supported the work of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership that aims to eradicate polio by 2023, since its launch in 1988. Since then, the number of polio cases has gone down by 99.9% and 17 million people who would have been paralyzed are still able to walk.
Another way that Canada supports critical immunization work abroad is through our support of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Gavi is a public-private partnership that works to improve equal access to new and underused vaccines for children living in the poorest countries. Half of the world’s children born every year receive a Gavi-funded vaccine, and since Gavi was created in 2000, more than 10 million lives have been saved.
Promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is vital for immunization efforts to be successful. The United Nations’ Gender Development Index confirms that countries with a high level of gender equity have higher immunization coverage. The more educated women are, for example, the more aware they are of the benefits of vaccination. Women’s low status in many societies can impede vaccination efforts: a woman may not have her husband’s support to vaccinate children, she may not be able to get to a clinic safely or the clinic hours may interfere with her working hours or household chores. To ensure that immunization efforts reach every child, we must address these kinds of common gender barriers.
World Immunization Week highlights the interconnectedness of the world we live in and the tremendous impact that a simple health intervention like immunization can have on the health of everyone, everywhere.
For more information on World Immunization Week, check out the World Health Organization website. Join the dialogue by following #vaccineswork on social media.
Pam Damoff is the Member of Parliament for Oakville North-Burlington and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health
Kamal Khera is the Member of Parliament for Brampton West and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of International Development