How can vaccines prevent diseases like polio?

Image caption A LEP case study: The epidemic in Eritrea

Globally, 175 million people still haven’t been vaccinated. Every year, there are 10 million new cases of vaccine-preventable diseases – a death toll that is expected to rise to 150 million if action is not taken.

Travelling through Italy, Switzerland and the UK I spoke to people living with disability and you’ll hear an often heartbreaking story.

I know my story isn’t unusual. At Handicap International, we have seen immense damage caused by late provision of vaccinations.

Although easy and cost-effective steps can prevent cases, for some children with disabilities that means the difference between life and death.

The average age of vaccination is between six and nine months. Later on, it is sometimes difficult and time-consuming to do all the early-stage work needed. And sometimes parents are simply put off because they fear their children with disabilities may suffer, or be abandoned by others who don’t understand what disability and how serious it can be.

Many are no doubt relieved to have been offered the chance to consider their son or daughter.

Is it possible to prevent these millions of cases? Absolutely.

In the US, we have tried every means to deliver vaccines on time to lower the waiting list – through managed care, direct donations, government financial support.

‘Is it possible to prevent these millions of cases? Absolutely’

According to Handicap International:

1.6m children are sitting on the waiting list in Ethiopia alone. Some in refugee camps that have become home to 7.8m people. Around 80% of these children are considered to be vulnerable and don’t have access to care because they can’t access a doctor.

I was one of those children.

I was born in a refugee camp in Africa. My life was turned upside down by the news that a million refugees are living in this camp.

Then came the news that 3.5m children in Ethiopia alone had contracted polio.

I was lucky. My mother could take me for a series of vaccinations, but many didn’t have the chance.

Handicap International does all it can.

But overall, the attitude towards vaccines isn’t positive. A recent French study showed that people are no more likely to accept vaccines if they believe their child is deaf.

And parents worry about fears that vaccines may result in an autism-like condition. In fact, the number of autistic children grows year on year.

So what are we to do?

Image caption No vaccine is perfect, says Professor Oliver Chalmers

At Handicap International, we are working on two projects to transform how we deliver vaccines.

First, we are teaching healthcare workers how to identify and cater for children with disabilities.

Second, we are working with governments to find out what people think and how they view vaccines, and to inform their public health policies.

We’re hopeful about the actions that can be taken.

It’s clear that improving the attitude and attitudes of healthcare workers, the parents and the general public is vital.

But we should also ask ourselves what we are all able to do to save lives.

Every vaccine has a different cause and complex, sometimes multi-layered virus. So, individual vaccines, whether recommended or not, can be only part of the answer.

Over-reliance on one measure can inhibit further evolution, and delay the capacity of vaccines to protect us.

But we have to realise the cause of a problem isn’t just the way the problem is solved, but also the way it is reported.

Policies need to make it clear that some disability doesn’t mean you cannot access vaccines.

These two projects are in early stages but I want to make sure the thousands of children we meet every year are not forgotten.

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