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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Give It A Shot

Opposition to vaccines may lead to outbreaks, like the case of measles in Europe

Written by K. VijayRaghavan | Updated: May 2, 2017 12:05:08 am
Many people do not understand that science is based on facts and evidence, not perception, that scientific products are put to tests before they reach society. If opinion without evidence drives decisions, this can put society in jeopardy. (Image for representational purpose)

People’s lives are inextricably linked to science and technology. Satellites launched into space beam crucial news and weather information to farmers in distant corners, and help city-dwellers navigate roads through GPS. Science improves crops, so the demands of a rapidly burgeoning population can be met. Science, through technology, leads to vital drugs that save lives everyday — deadly diseases today are now about chronic lifestyle issues. The irony, however, is that the more science and technology come into our lives, the more they are taken for granted; even as they save lives, they are undermined by the very people whose lives they are saving.

Therein lies the danger. Many people do not understand that science is based on facts and evidence, not perception, that scientific products are put to tests before they reach society. If opinion without evidence drives decisions, this can put society in jeopardy.

One classic example is vaccines. Fifty years ago, in 1967, the World Health Organisation estimated that 15 million people contracted smallpox, and two million people died of the disease that year. Today, smallpox is eradicated, largely because of a single intervention — the smallpox vaccine. Over the years, the introduction of many new vaccines has led to more and more children surviving.

Vaccines protect against some of the most deadly childhood diseases, such as measles, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, pneumonia and diarrhoea. Due to a phenomenon called “herd immunity”, when a critical number of children are vaccinated, it protects the “herd”, so that even non-vaccinated children are safe. Some parents, therefore, begin to think that vaccinations are not needed. They oppose new vaccines; scientists who speak up risk being labelled arrogant or face allegations of being in the pay of multinationals.

In recent times, there have been reports about how misleading comments on social media tried to derail India’s measles-rubella vaccine programme. The canards included statements like the vaccine was being introduced to induce impotence in children belonging to certain communities. This led to low vaccine coverage in the initial days after the launch. The government had to make special efforts to reach out and convince parents and school authorities about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. Such rumour-mongering is a threat to the well-being of children.

The fallout of such bad press over vaccines is evident in Europe, which has been hit by an outbreak of the extremely contagious measles virus after decades. Such outbreaks were also reported in other countries, including the United States, in 2015. Every year, vaccination averts an estimated 2-3 million deaths from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough) and measles, making immunisation one of the most successful public health initiatives.

The groups that oppose immunisation, which can potentially protect children from these diseases, should hold themselves morally responsible when such disease outbreaks affect a child. We, as a country, celebrate being polio-free and maternal and neonatal tetanus-free. These achievements have largely been possible due to vaccines. Yet, whenever the government includes a new vaccine in its Universal Immunisation Programme, there are murmurs of suspicion. We need to stop being alarmist about science. The communication of science to society also needs to be amplified. But when alarmist causes without a scientific basis have a dominant presence, and when calm rational analysis is sidelined, we have a serious problem.

India has a well-earned reputation of excellence in research and development in the pharmaceutical sector, including vaccine development. India provides about 43 per cent of the World Health Organisation (WHO) prequalified global vaccine supply, primarily from the private sector. Our vaccine manufacturers not only supply vaccines within the country, but also help in saving children’s lives across the world.

The ministry of science and technology’s department of biotechnology (DBT) has recently developed a vaccine against rotavirus diarrhoea. This is a unique social innovation partnership, which, led by the ministry, brought together the expertise of Indian and international researchers as well as the public and private sectors. India prides itself on its strong scientific tradition. We keep that flame of innovation alive to address the pressing needs of the nation, from vaccines to wheat genome sequencing, to novel drug development.

We need to give science and technology a chance. More than that, we need to give our children a chance.

The writer is Secretary, Department of Biotechnology, Government of India

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