A topic that is seldom discussed has suddenly made its way into the news and is making headlines. Are vaccines safe? Are they essential? Why does my child need vaccines? These are some of the questions being posed.

For the first time, the government-run immunisation campaign — the measles-rubella (MR) drive — has faced challenges due to rumours spread on social media. Now, with reports of measles making a resurgence in Europe and in the United States, we all need to take stock of the reasons for these concerns. We also need to be afraid of what would happen if we didn’t immunise.

A few decades ago, diseases such as polio, smallpox, and neonatal tetanus caused widespread disability and death among children worldwide. Clean water, sanitation, and access to health-care facilities alone could not have contained these deaths, so medical science came to the rescue.

Science is under siege

India is free of these diseases because safe, effective vaccines were developed. That science is now under siege. With rumours taking hold of people’s faith, the health of children is at stake not only in India but also in developed nations in Europe and the U.S.

When vaccine coverage fell, the incidence of pertussis [whopping cough] peaked in 2012 in the U.S.; similarly, measles is now claiming the lives of innocent children in Europe. During India’s MR vaccination drive, social media was used as a tool to spread misleading information and hinder a critical government programme aimed at preventing a debilitating disease. In a country which lags behind in providing access to clean water, sanitation and adequate health care, a robust vaccination programme is essential to safeguard the health of our children. The damage these rumours can do is much larger in India when compared to our global counterparts. In a country of 1.2 billion people, with varying social and economic realities, prevention is always better than waiting for treatment. Vaccine-preventable diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, and measles are significant contributors to child morbidity and mortality in our country. The risk is not only child death but also that children who do survive these disease are at risk of long-term effects such as suffering deafness, seizures, motor impairment, cognitive impacts and stunting.

Meeting rigorous standards

Today’s vaccines are safer and more effective than before. They are tested through rigorous and continuous scientific study — years and years of data collected from tens of thousands of children — before they are licensed for use. Before a vaccine makes its way into the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP), the Health Ministry and other competent technical expert bodies analyse, discuss and deliberate on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, among other key considerations. Evidence suggests that the benefits of immunisation, (including hospitalisation costs and the broader benefits to families who do not miss work because of a serious illness in the family) are far greater than any cost of the vaccine. The economic and social dividends awarded to the community are substantial — particularly when one considers that vaccines are able to reach the poorest and most vulnerable who are disproportionately impacted by the tragic consequences of a severe disease.

Every year, 2.6 crore children are born in our country and immunising the population has far-reaching effects that influence parents’ confidence in the health system. If we are to reap the benefits of reduced child mortality and avoid inheriting a population stricken with disease, we have to ensure their good health and well-being. Vaccines are technological advancements that will enable India to look forward to a healthier future and help secure India’s position among other strong and economically contributing nations.

When children are not vaccinated fully and on time, the entire community’s health is at risk. This has to be a group effort, involving national and State officials, doctors, parents, families, children, hospitals, health-care workers, and every citizen, and who can raise awareness around it.

Parents must ensure their children are vaccinated to protect not only their child but other Indian children as well. India has never needed science more than it does today. With population growth, climate change, new infectious diseases, antibiotic resistance and several new threats emerging each day, the need for new vaccines is urgent. Now is the time for all to work together to safeguard the health of our children, our future, and our India.

(Dr. Pradeep Haldar is Deputy Commissioner, Immunization Division, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare)