Worldwide, 20 per cent of children go unvaccinated

With the measles outbreak in Swansea now in its second month, Sarah Morrison reports on why the global drive to immunise all babies against preventable diseases has hit a plateau

Within hours of Gareth Williams becoming the first person believed to have died of measles in the UK for five years, special vaccination clinics were opening for the third weekend in a row. And with more than 800 cases now reported in Swansea and other areas, and up to two million children at risk nationwide, officials at Public Health Wales said the 25-year-old, who died last Thursday at his home in Swansea, was unlikely to be the only fatality.

World health officials say the Welsh outbreak is not a one-off but symptomatic of a much wider problem. More than 20 countries have been hit by measles outbreaks in the past two years, as the global push to immunise all babies against vaccine-preventable diseases is stagnating. Millions are being left unprotected against a range of illnesses.

Worldwide, almost one-third (29 per cent) of all deaths in children aged between a month and five years old are caused by an illness – such as measles, pneumococcal diseases, tetanus, or diarrhoea – that could have been prevented by a vaccine, and the numbers left unprotected are increasing. More than 22 million children were left unvaccinated in 2011, up more than a million in 12 months. While global immunisation has been one of the world's greatest public health achievements – full coverage has increased from around 5 per cent in the 1970s to 83 per cent today – experts warn that numbers have been plateauing for almost a decade.

Days ahead of the Global Vaccine Summit, to be held in Abu Dhabi, health experts warn that strategies must be "stepped up". "Around 20 per cent of children are unreached by vaccines; that number is too high," Dr Jean-Marie Okwo-Bele, director of the WHO Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, told The Independent on Sunday: "We need universal coverage of nearly 100 per cent."

Around half of the world's unvaccinated children live in three countries: India, Indonesia and Nigeria. Around 70 per cent live in 10 countries. The main reason babies are not vaccinated is no longer down to cost, experts said – it costs less than 70p to vaccinate a child against measles for life – but rather down to conflict, disparities between countries and a lack of political will. There are also vaccination myths to dispel.

In Britain, teenagers aged between 13 and 15 are more likely to be susceptible to measles because of the controversy over the (since discredited) research in the late 1990s about MMR jabs being linked to autism. Measles deaths dropped more than 70 per cent between 2000 and 2011 worldwide, thanks to vaccination efforts. But the UK's national immunisation rate is still 5 per cent lower than WHO guidelines. Dr Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, has suggested unvaccinated Australian children should be banned from school. He said those spreading the "anti-vaccination message" are "hurting our children."

Measles deaths in Britain and other developed countries are still rare. During conflicts the likelihood of outbreaks is higher; Jordan, which is host to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, has just announced 14 cases of measles, the first since 1994. More than 95 per cent of fatalities occur in low-income countries with weak infrastructures. "Something extra needs to be done," said Jos Vandelaer, chief of immunisation at Unicef, the largest buyer of vaccines in the world. "We are reaching four out of five children, but the fifth child usually belongs to underserved populations and disadvantaged groups. We have to look at where these unimmunised children are geographically, understand why they're not reached, and then tailor solutions accordingly. This programme is not finished."

Orin Levine, director of vaccine delivery at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, agreed. "The stakes are very high," he said. "A child born in a low-income country is 18 times more likely to die before reaching age five than a child in a high-income country." He added that if global ambitions were met by 2020, 20 million lives could be saved.

The emphasis this week will be on polio. Cases have decreased by more than 99 per cent since 1988; there are now only three countries in the world (Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan) where the disease remains endemic. Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for International Development, told The Independent on Sunday: "Without global eradication the risk of disease always remains. It will take a concerted global effort with real investment from donors, development banks and foundations."

As Professor Kate O'Brien, acting director of the International Vaccine Access Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said: "we have a long way to go." "If we don't carry over the momentum behind polio eradication to all vaccine-preventable childhood disease-control efforts... we cannot break the cycle of poverty, ill health and insecurity that continues to risk the lives of millions of children every year."

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW London

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Account Payable Assistant - SW Londo...

    Recruitment Genius: Bathroom Showroom Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £14560 - £17680 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Even though their premises have...

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Manager

    £44000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Marketing company based in cent...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Installation / Commissioning Engineer - North West

    £22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Installation / Commission...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence