It is hard to imagine now, but there was a time when millions would lose their lives to perfectly curable or preventable diseases like tuberculosis, polio, tetanus or even smallpox. Thanks to vaccines, these diseases do not pose a threat anymore to most of us. Vaccination has been one of the most effective means to stop fatal infections and save lives.
As part of the awareness campaign Global Health, Global Access, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we advocate for actors and factors that have a strong positive contribution to global health. Vaccination is on the top of the list.
A brief timeline
Vaccination was discovered around the end of the 1700s. The first vaccine was against smallpox. A few decades later, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide started getting vaccinated. This liberated the population from deadly smallpox epidemics.
In 1974, the World Health Organisation started its mission to achieve universal vaccination against six preventable diseases by 1990. Vaccines require extremely delicate transportation and storing arrangements. So, it proved to be a challenging process.
Also, low- and middle-income countries lagged far behind in reaching that goal. In 2000, the Global Vaccines Alliance was established to expedite the mission.
Now there are vaccines available for more than 20 fatal diseases. Previous death sentences like tuberculosis and Ebola have now become preventable. Child mortality has decreased around the world. People can live longer and healthier lives.
How do vaccines work?
Prevention is better than cure. Vaccines prevent diseases through immunisation. Once injected, vaccines strengthen the body’s natural immune system and reduce the damaging effects of an infection.
This preventive function has numerous positive effects on individuals and societies. It not only protects those who are vaccinated and immunised, also keeps those who are not vaccinated, safe through herd immunity.
Vaccines reduce health complications and prevent infections from growing into cancer. By vaccinating the majority of the population, a disease can be eliminated from an area. It’s even possible to eradicate a disease for good through vaccination, the way smallpox has been eradicated.
Vaccination and immunization for a free society and world
Imagine we are still vulnerable to all the infectious diseases since the beginning of history; we are still living with cholera, diphtheria and tetanus, still helpless to rabies and tuberculosis. Could we live and thrive as a species the way we do now? Would life be the same if vaccines against those diseases had not saved millions?
Now we are experiencing a live demonstration of how it feels to be powerless against an infectious disease. From economy to mental health, from development to women’s and children’s rights, people are facing unimaginable consequences because of the recent COVID-19 pandemic.
This shows that health is not just about health. The implications reach much further. This also shows the difference vaccines have made, and still make, to contribute to a healthier, freer, more prosperous world.
Vaccination and global health
Good news for the world: several vaccines for COVID-19 have been developed. The question is how long it will take before they reach the most vulnerable people in every far corner of the world.
Vaccination and immunisation is a basic necessity. And a strong, well-functioning health system can distribute vaccines timely and effectively.
Yet, many low- and middle-income countries cannot achieve full vaccine coverage. As a result, many people still die from preventable diseases. To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3 (Health and Wellbeing and Universal Health Coverage), this is a massive challenge that the world has yet to overcome.