Every week, more Indian children are killed by preventable diseases, such as pneumonia and diarrhoea, than the combined casualties from some of the most horrific tragedies of our times such as the 9/11 attack, the 2005 London bombings and the 26/11 Mumbai attack. It is an irony that India is not only near the top of any table for the most vaccine-preventable deaths; over half of all vaccines produced in the world are made in India.
A few months ago, the Hindustan Times reported that in 2011 more children under five died in India than in any other nation in the world — a child in India was six times as likely to die as a child in China. Last year, pneumonia and diarrhoea claimed the lives of over 500,000 of these children in India. What is even more painful is that we continue to look the other way even though the means to prevent this tragedy are within easy reach.
Evidence from across the world as well as our own experience in rural Shivgarh, Uttar Pradesh, shows how simple interventions such as breastfeeding babies immediately after birth, ensuring hygiene and seeking professional healthcare on time, among others, can empower communities to battle these childhood diseases. There is an urgent need to complement these efforts with the provision of life-saving vaccines to children who need them most.
There is a scientific consensus that vaccination is the most effective, equitable and economical health intervention that the world has ever seen. Their impact on preventive health is unambiguously transformational and they should be the cornerstone of any effective health strategy. After all, immunisation helped eradicate smallpox and polio is close to being beaten too.
The pentavalent vaccine that protects against major strains of pneumonia-causing bacteria is widely used around the world including in Bangladesh, Pakistan, North Korea and in many African countries. Yet it remains inaccessible to a majority of Indian children in some of its poorest states. Ironically, India is one of the largest producers of the pentavalent vaccine. So, while our own children suffer from lack of access to it, international organisations bought over 80 million doses of this shot from India for use in 67 countries. Countries such as Sudan and Rwanda are making vaccines to prevent rotavirus (responsible for four of every 10 deaths from diarrhoea) available to their poor; in India only the rich have access to this intervention.
In many aspects India remains a beacon for other developing countries but we are rapidly ceding ground when it comes to providing life-saving healthcare to our children through the introduction of new vaccines. Ideologically-motivated attempts questioning vaccine safety and efficacy are partly responsible for this. Claims that link vaccine use to higher rates of death or illness among those immunised have been found to be untrue. The benefits of vaccination have been proven through the use of universally accepted, scientific methodologies. These reports have then been published in peer-reviewed journals for public scrutiny. It is our collective responsibility to put science back in the driver’s seat.
Vishwajeet Kumar is a maternal and neonatal health expert and Founder of the Community Empowerment Lab in Shivgarh, Uttar Pradesh. The views expressed by the author are personal.