Global vaccination efforts against COVID-19 continue. As of 14th April 2022, nearly two-thirds of the worldwide population had received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose. Furthermore, almost 60% had received a second dose, and nearly a quarter had received a booster.
In addition, many vulnerable individuals have had a third or even fourth full vaccine dose. On top of this, many countries are planning ongoing COVID-19 vaccination programmes similarly to how they administer immunisations for seasonal flu.
Although the pandemic has brought vaccinations to the forefront of global thinking, the truth is that vaccination programmes have long been a fundamental part of reducing the global healthcare burden. Indeed, such is the importance of vaccines that the World Health Organization (WHO) cites access to clean water as the only thing more effective at reducing the prevalence of infectious diseases.
With World Immunization Week taking place from 24th April, let’s look at the role vaccines play in affecting public health and their role in society as a whole.
Vaccines and disease control
People often think of vaccines in the context of helping to eliminate diseases. However, we must always consider that, to date, only smallpox has been 100% eradicated, although eradicating other diseases remains possible.
It's more helpful to think about vaccination in terms of controlling diseases.
For example, we know that most vaccines aren't 100% effective. However, they are effective to a high enough extent that, according to the WHO, they save six million lives a year.
In certain regions, vaccinations have proven effective at massively reducing the instances of specific infectious diseases. For example, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites 14 diseases that have “almost been forgotten” thanks to vaccines. Likewise, seasonal flu claims the lives of hundreds of thousands of people per year. However, many more would die – and hospitals would be under overwhelming pressure from flu admissions – were it not for vaccines.
Vaccines and mitigating the severity of disease
One of the least understood factors of vaccines is that they typically have different objectives and perform different roles.
For example, some vaccines cannot prevent you from becoming infected. Still, they can prevent the development or severity of a disease if you do. This has been a vital feature of most COVID-19 vaccines, which impact the severity of the disease among those who do become infected. As a result, while many countries continue to see colossal numbers of infections, those with high vaccination rates typically don't see hospitalisations and deaths following a similar trend curve.
Vaccines help those who aren’t vaccinated, too
The concept of herd immunity is one that many of us have learned about since early 2020. While it has proven controversial in the context of COVID-19, it remains a vital pillar and objective of any vaccination programme.
For example, according to the WHO, Hib disease in The Gambia was eliminated despite vaccine coverage being under 70%.
While some people are hesitant about receiving vaccines, many clinically vulnerable people cannot receive a vaccine due to their condition. As such, high uptake of vaccines in the community can help protect these people by reducing their chances of acquiring an infection or developing severe disease if they do.
The role of vaccines in preventing related diseases
As well as preventing the "headline" infection or disease, vaccinations also protect us by preventing the development of associated conditions.
- Vaccination against hepatitis B can help prevent the development of liver cancer and protect you from hepatitis D.
- The flu vaccine can prevent the common ear infection otitis media in children.
- Measles vaccines can prevent conditions like bacterial pneumonia and dysentery.
- The COVID-19 vaccine can prevent associated conditions like pneumonia. However, whether it reduces the prevalence and effects of long COVID remains inconclusive.
The broader role of vaccines in general society
Overall, vaccines play a vital role in further developing our entire global society and have a profound and far-reaching impact.
Among other things, vaccines help to:
- Reduce healthcare burdens and costs.
- Prevent the development of antibiotic resistance by reducing the need for their use.
- Extend life expectancy.
- Make it safe to travel to different parts of the world.
- Empower women socially and economically.
- Promote economic growth.
- Enhance and promote equality and equity.
- Promote peace and reduce the risk of bioterrorism.
It's easy to think that receiving a vaccine does little more than protect yourself from a specific disease. However, as you can see, its effects are far-reaching and potentially world-changing. This is particularly true if more of us take advantage of vaccines when they are available.
When is World Immunization Week, and what are its aims?
World Immunization Week is always the last week in April. As such, World Immunization Week 2022 takes place from 24th to 30th April.
As with most health awareness events, World Immunization Week is organised and predominantly promoted by the WHO on a global and regional level.
This year, World Immunization Week carries a theme of “Long Life for All – In pursuit of a long life well lived.” The WHO’s campaign this year focuses on the impact of vaccines on people at all stages of life, talking about children who benefit from immunisation growing up to fulfil their dreams and potential, as well as older adults who are protected from disease so can enjoy their later years happier and healthier than otherwise might be the case.
Getting involved with World Immunization Week
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can get involved with World Immunization Week, the WHO’s campaign site for this year’s event features a wealth of resources and details on what you can do to promote the event at home, in your workplace, or around your community.