The outbreak of whooping cough in Texas, California and other states this year underscores the critical importance of widespread vaccination coverage, both locally as well as around the world, said a leading global health official.
Alex Palacios, a special representative of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership aimed at increasing immunisation rates in poor countries, said that despite public health advances in the US and other wealthy countries over the last 60 years, regular diseases that have all but been eradicated can still threaten lives if immunization rates fall.
"Whooping cough, diphtheria and diseases that some of us don't even recognise anymore are not gone forever. They are widespread in developing countries and do also arise here in the US," said Palacios. "It is important that vaccine-preventable diseases are kept under control no matter where they crop up, whether it be in Texas or in Kenya. Diseases don't recognise borders."
Last year, 3,358 Texans had whooping cough, also known as pertussis, and three of them died. It was the highest number of cases in a half-century. So far this year, Texas has reported 1,783 cases. California has at least 4,017 cases of the highly infectious disease and is on track to break a 55-year-old record. Ohio has reported 1,019 cases. In contrast, in Kenya last year, there were an estimated 1,900 deaths due to pertussis; 7,500 deaths to rotavirus, a diarrheal disease; and 36,000 deaths due to pneumonia and influenza.
Anna Dragsbaek, President and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, said that Texans should be concerned about outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases anywhere in the world.
"As long as there is polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases in the world, outbreaks are only a plane flight away," she said. "It may seem like it's safe to be complacent. But in actuality, diseases such as whooping cough and measles arise only because we have been complacent. We are still all at risk because not enough people are immunized worldwide. The health of people in developing countries matters to Texas.''
Vaccination of children and adults can prevent pertussis. The pertussis vaccine is given along with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines in the same shot (called DTaP) for children. DTaP cannot be given to babies less than six weeks old or to anyone seven years of age or older. After that, children and adults are given a booster shot.
Experts say that the lack of vaccine coverage among adults in the US is the main reason for the upsurge in the last two years of whooping cough. Infants, who are too young to be fully immunized against the illness, are at particular risk. Health officials recommend that parents and caretakers receive booster shots to extend their immunity to the disease and lower the risk to babies.
Palacios and Dragsbaek will speak on the global state of immunizations at the Texas Immunization Summit 2010 in Fort Worth on September 30th, hosted by The Immunization Partnership and sponsored by St. David's Foundation. Palacios will give a keynote address over lunch on "The Global Health Equity Challenge: New Vaccines Against Pneumonia and Rotavirus" on October 1st. He will also be speaking at a World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth event on "Saving the Future: Global Efforts to Reduce Child Mortality" on September 30th.
Last week at the United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in New York City, global political leaders endorsed immunization of the world's children as one of the priorities to saving lives and improving health.
Palacios, who attended the UN Summit, said people everywhere, including in the United States, will be affected by the outcome of discussions about stopping vaccine-preventable diseases around the world.
"There is the potential to save four million lives over the next five years if we can immunize a significant number of the world's poor children against the two biggest childhood killers: pneumonia and diarrhea," he said.
He noted that the GAVI Alliance requires $4.3 billion in order to introduce the vaccines.
In its first 10 years, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United States and other nations, GAVI has helped to deliver vaccines to more then 250 million children, an investment that is expected to save 5.4 million lives in the poorest nations.
In the last decade, despite the progress of developing countries in using more childhood vaccines, an estimated eight million children died from pneumococcal disease, a leading cause of pneumonia and meningitis, and five million children died from rotavirus, the major cause of severe diarrhoea among young children that is most deadly in poor nations. Experts predict that the introduction of the two vaccines can eventually save the lives of one million children per year.
"Vaccines are great value for money, and their impact is measured in the number of children whose lives we can save," said Palacios.