Vaccines and Outbreaks in the Time of COVID-19

April 7, 2020

We’re all grappling with a new reality.

Coronavirus is confronting families with the reality of what it is like to see disease outbreak in their communities. Suddenly, parents are facing an urgent challenge: how to stop circulation of a disease in their communities. Schools and offices are closed, sporting events and meetings are cancelled.

We remind our children to wash their hands and cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. We stock up on soap, sprays, wipes and gels - anything to help practice good hygiene and to stop a threat we can’t see coming. We keep our distance. We question every sniffle. We try to stay calm, but we just keep thinking: if only we had a vaccine.

A health worker educates mothers about coronavirus at Yambio State Hospital in Yambio, South Sudan on Thursday, March 19, 2020. On 4th February, 2020, UNICEF kicked off a vaccination campaign with the aim of vaccinating 2.5 million children against measles in South Sudan. © UNICEF/UNI315509/Ongoro

Experts are working as fast as they can to develop and test a coronavirus vaccine that meets rigorous effectiveness and safety standards. As we wait and hope, the outbreak is revealing what is at stake when communities do not have this protective shield against a disease. 

Coronavirus is a stark reminder terrible proof that outbreaks can happen in any country. And, in an interconnected world, an outbreak anywhere is a threat to children everywhere.

This is not the first epidemic and it will not be the last. With measles, a safe and inexpensive vaccine is widely available. Yet, we already know the global resurgence of measles is putting young children at risk, because too many children have not been vaccinated against measles.  

A 3-year-old girl receives a vaccine shot at a community health centre in Beijing, China, on 26 March 2020. Provinces other than Hubei, the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, gradually resumed full vaccination services that had been halted due to the outbreak. © UNICEF/UNI315081/Yuwei

Measles is very contagious. A large proportion of the population (95 per cent) needs to be vaccinated to stop the spread of the disease. Outbreaks occur when vaccination rates dip below this level. In other words, when too few people within a given community are immunized, the risk of measles outbreaks increases.

In 2019, more than 500,000 people were infected with measles. The disease returned to the UK, Albania, Czechia and Greece. The US saw its highest number of cases in 25 years. And an outbreak killed more than 4,500 young children in Democratic Republic of the Congo alone. This year, as the world grapples with the spread of coronavirus, Ukraine, Madagascar, Brazil, Philippines, DR Congo and Kazakhstan are also responding to deadly measles outbreaks.

Mama Bwanga (centre left), 25, and her children wait with the neighborhood midwife (left) at a health clinic in Nsele district, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The two youngest, sons Dieu Merci (asleep on Bwanga's lap), 1 month, and Mélé, 7 (to her immediate left), will receive measles vaccines; daughter Raissa, 10, has already been vaccinated. © UNICEF/UNI308220/Brown

We may not have a vaccine for coronavirus yet, but we do for many other diseases, including measles. Thanks to the vaccine, measles is now wholly preventable disease and, thankfully, the vast majority of parents do choose to vaccinate.

Yet, outbreaks are inevitable when pockets of children are left unprotected.  In some cases, conflict and other obstacles are making it hard to deliver vaccines. In other situations, it could be lack of access to vaccination services due to geographical remoteness of some communities. In others, parents are not vaccinating their children because they are complacent, or because misinformation and lack of faith in the health care system have seeded distrust.  Vaccinating every child against measles is the best way to protect against the disease. By vaccinating their children, parents not only protect their own children’s health, they also protect other children in their communities. Conversely, by choosing not to vaccinate, parents not only put their children at risk, they endanger their community, particularly those who have not yet been able to vaccinate, like new-born babies.

Sendai Zea, Communication Officer and Sergia Cubillán, Health Officer during the delivery of medical supplies in a Hospital located in Caracas, on 02 April 2020. © UNICEF/UNI318356/Párraga

The science is clear. Doctors everywhere agree that vaccines are safe, effective and lifesaving. But in a sense, immunization is a victim of its own success. Thanks to vaccines, many of us have been fortunate to grow up without seeing family or friends fall sick with measles or polio. Vaccines have eliminated the diseases from many countries - but also the visible and shocking impacts that make us fear infection – cultivating complacency.

Now, coronavirus has brought that fear back to our streets, subways and homes, a reminder of what is at stake when there is no vaccine against a widely spreading disease. 

Doctors and nurses are putting their own health at risk to care for our families. We must trust them when they advise parents to vaccinate against preventable diseases that also remain a very real threat to children.

We have in our hands one of the greatest tools in the history of human health. Vaccines have almost eradicated polio and prevented over 23 million deaths from measles since 2000. Let’s learn from our history and from the unfolding crisis.

Vaccinate your children, make sure their immunization schedule is up to date.

 

Top Photo: A baby is being weighted and vaccinated in the health center of Gonzagueville, a suburb of Abidjan, in the South of Côte d'Ivoire. Nurses are wearing masks and gloves to protect against the Coronavirus. © UNICEF/UNI316687/Frank Dejongh