The health of children should figure much more in our public discourse but as we have seen, this is not always the case. Protecting children through immunisation and a comprehensive package of interventions reaps many benefits for India’s children, families, and communities. India is moving in the right direction towards tackling childhood diarrhoea, pneumonia, measles and rubella by introducing pneumococcal conjugate and measles-rubella vaccines, and scaling up the rotavirus vaccine under its universal immunisation programme (UIP) in early 2017.
Routine immunisation has resulted in the elimination of diseases like polio and neonatal tetanus. The UIP provides several vaccines, including those against measles, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) and polio; in some states, vaccines against rotavirus and Japanese encephalitis are also included. Vaccines such as the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) were previously available only privately but will now be introduced in the UIP, making it accessible to the most vulnerable.
Apart from those protected directly by vaccination, there are broader impacts of this within a community; “herd protection” can help to indirectly protect adults as well as children too young or old to receive vaccines. “Herd protection” is an important benefit of introducing vaccines and can be achieved by sustaining high levels of vaccine coverage. In this way, individuals and their families and communities can be protected by vaccines.
Further, by preventing infection or reducing disease severity, vaccines for diseases like rotavirus and cholera can help prevent long-term effects such as stunting and impaired cognition. Several studies have shown that the value of vaccines is not just limited to health benefits and, in the long run, could lead to measurable improvement in national productivity. For example, a study in the Philippines linked vaccination to improvements in children’s test scores, which could yield a return on investment as high as 21% when translated into potential earning gains as adults.
Finally, vaccines can help reduce healthcare-related costs. Vaccination through the UIP costs far less than treating disease or controlling outbreaks. Vaccines are a public health “best buy” for the world, and over the next decade, the roll out of new vaccines like Hib, PCV, and rotavirus vaccines in the world’s 73 poorest countries could save about $63 billion in treatment and lost productivity.
NK Ganguly is former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, and Mathuram Santosham is, director emeritus, Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health
The views expressed are personal