Written by By Cassidy Chock
“No vaccine is perfect.”
That was the message Carolyn Hopkins, a professor of pediatrics and vice dean for research at the University of Toronto’s SickKids hospital, delivered in a speech Wednesday night. “I can’t guarantee it will not have a potential risk. But, what are the potential harms? Well, that’s another question. I am convinced of only one: we must immunize.”
She and other speakers explored the shortcomings of “Invisible Enemies,” a symposium on the polio and measles vaccine sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Toronto.
Dr. Paul Biddinger, Director of the Global Health Program at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Vaccine Development and a speaker, lamented the fact that half of all people who still need the polio vaccine are not vaccinated. “No one is saying it can’t be done. We’re just saying, we need to make sure that happens. I want everybody to look at this,” he said.
Biddinger highlighted a new study that showed that Poland’s routine vaccination campaigns could have prevented more than 2,000 cases of polio and up to 1,200 cases of measles in 2009-2011, thoughPoland was one of the few countries to have properly implemented vaccination campaigns.
“Poland has eliminated polio and measles. But the problems that we’re talking about are not limited to one country. It’s across the globe,” he said.
Dr. Kirsten Monteith, also from the Centre for Vaccine Development, said the two vaccine issues have a common root problem. “Both vaccine challenges are due to a lack of funding and cooperation,” she said. The vaccination issue, which is more challenging than the polio vaccine challenge, has affected more than 80 countries, representing almost 100% of children under the age of 5 years, she said.
Statistics show that as funding for vaccine programs has grown, both diseases have declined. In 2000, 81 countries had polio, while today, only 21 countries are experiencing outbreaks, the WHO reported. Vaccination programs have also managed to control measles in 90% of the world’s population.
But Monteith pointed out some issues that the efforts of the past 20 years have not addressed. Citing a report from the International Vaccine Access Center, she said the vaccine-preventable diseases are still a problem, “even though we have provided all of these benefits. But we have not spent enough on the disease prevention side.”
In addition to reaching all children who need the measles vaccine, Monteith also highlighted some worrisome trends: while most of the world is still receiving the childhood vaccination campaigns that are meant to protect all children, there are still pockets where populations are not “being vaccinated.”
Health experts worry that in developing countries, less-educated parents think the programs are not effective, or believe their children cannot be immunized, especially if they are girls. “Solutions for this are complicated, complex and very difficult, but we need to figure it out,” Monteith said.