Childhood Vaccinations against Rare Diseases


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There is no denying that vaccines have saved countless lives since their development and introduction into large scale immunisation programmes. Vaccination has also managed to eradicate some major diseases, and is working towards completely eliminating even more. In this article we look at how this has been achieved, and why we still need to undergo routine vaccinations for diseases that have almost disappeared.

The effect of immunisation programmes on disease

In the modern world vaccines are delivered as part of vaccination programmes, during which doses are given regularly to completely immunise against a body of different diseases. These programmes do more than just confer individual immunity, in fact they also offer protection to whole communities. This is because the more immunisations delivered to a specific community, the harder it is for a disease to spread and cause sickness. This is a phenomenon called herd immunity, and is an extremely important effect of vaccines.

On a larger scale, once enough people have been immunised against a disease in the world as a whole, said disease can be completely eliminated. The most prominent example of this achievement is that of smallpox, an extremely contagious disease which was declared as officially eradicated by 1980. At one point smallpox was one of the deadliest killers of the 18th century, and epidemics were commonplace and widespread in Europe. It is thought that without vaccination, despite all the advances made in modern medicine, at least 2 million people would die every year from the infection.

Other diseases are well on their way towards being completely eliminated. Great examples include polio, diphtheria, and whooping cough. The poliovirus can cause severe paralysis, and was a major health concern across the world, paralysing more than 1,000 young children a day when at its height. The disease could even kill by paralysing the lungs, and countless people suffered this fate as little as 50 years ago. Now however, polio has almost been completely eradicated, and the hope is that in the next few years the disease will be completely wiped out.

Before the introduction of vaccination in the latter half of the 20th century, there were an estimated 60,000 cases of diphtheria and 120,000 cases of pertussis every  year in the UK alone. Now however, diphtheria has been all but completely eradicated, with only 6 cases reported as of 2008, all of which were imported from other countries. Pertussis is also on its way out with only a 1,000 cases reported as of 2008.

There are many other examples, including a 99% reduction in the number of meningitis C infections observed since the introduction of the vaccine in 1999.

Why do we still need vaccines if these diseases have all but disappeared?

Despite the fact that some diseases have almost been eradicated, we still undergo regular childhood vaccination against those conditions. This is because while these illnesses have almost been eliminated, they have yet to be completely removed as threats. Smallpox is no longer a part of routine childhood vaccination programmes because the disease has been completely eliminated from the wild.

Diseases like pertussis and diphtheria are rare and becoming rarer, but a lapse in regular immunisation would have the devastating effect of allowing these conditions to return. If uptake of the vaccine is reduced, herd immunity diminishes and diseases like these can take the opportunity to spread, and there is plenty of evidence to support the fact that this can happen.

After fall and subsequent division of the Soviet Union, there was a major lapse in the Russian immunisation programme that caused a serious diphtheria epidemic.

Because of a scare regarding the safety of the pertussis vaccine, parents in the 70s and 80s stopped allowing their children to have the relevant immunisation. Ultimately this resulted in 3 separate epidemics in which over 100 children died after catching pertussis.

More recently a scare regarding the safety of the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (the MMR vaccine) resulted in a decline in the uptake of the vaccine. This is thought to have led to a recent resurgence in measles which caused an epidemic in Wales.

These cases highlight the importance of abiding by the NHS’ childhood immunisation programme, a policy which is designed to protect children and adults from diseases that would otherwise be contagious and even deadly. The hope is that with regular vaccination, many diseases that are now a part of the childhood vaccination programme will be eliminated completely. More than 150 new vaccines are being developed and tested against a range of conditions, and in the  years to come these will hopefully also be on the road to eradication.


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