KUALA LUMPUR, April 29 ― It’s been over a year that people around the world started battling the Covid-19 pandemic.
Unprecedentedly, the health crisis forced people to distance themselves from their loved ones to protect them.
And it is timely that the World Immunisation Week, which is the last week of April (April 24-30), coincides with yet another wave of the infectious disease as the number of cases and deaths continue to spike globally.
As the world rolls out the much-needed Covid-19 vaccines, the World Health Organisation (WHO) named this year’s World Immunisation Week “Vaccines Bring Us Closer” to highlight the importance of vaccination not only during a pandemic, but throughout life.
In Malaysia, Sanofi Pasteur has stepped up its efforts to help contain the infectious disease through vaccination and also educate the public about the benefits of life-course immunisation.
Sanofi Pasteur Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei general manager Camille de Lataillade told Malay Mail that for over 200 years, vaccines have protected humankind against diseases that threaten lives.
“Immunisation is widely recognised as one of the modern civilisation’s greatest medical achievements.
“Since the emergence of vaccination, life expectancy has increased by 12 to 25 years.”
Citing WHO, Lataillade said it was estimated that between two and three million lives were saved annually thanks to vaccination.
“With vaccines, we can advance without the burden of vaccine-preventable diseases like smallpox and polio, which cost humanity hundreds.”
Looking back to over a year ago, Lataillade said people from all over the world have been living separated from family members, friends and colleagues since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
“We cannot see each other, because we risk contaminating each other.
“But, the Covid-19 vaccines, along with systemic tracking and testing will help us progress on a path to a world where we can be together again.”
Although the Covid-19 vaccines are foremost in everyone’s thought, Lataillade said other vaccines are equally as important to prevent people from getting serious diseases such as influenza (flu), measles, polio, diphtheria or pertussis which are also highly transmissible.
“This week is a good reminder for all of us to reflect and value the importance of vaccinations.
“Vaccines are the second most effective public health intervention for reducing infectious diseases and deaths, behind only clean water.”
Lataillade said the silver lining from the Covid-19 pandemic brings heightened interest in vaccinations and health-seeking behaviour.
While the heightened public awareness on the importance of vaccinations is a positive sign, she noted that the public needed to be aware that this interest should not peak only during an outbreak, but it has to be constant throughout life.
Lataillade said the greatest lessons she learned from the pandemic were that everyone has become more aware of the need to be safe, to protect and provide for their families and loved ones, and also be aware of what is at stake when communities do not have the protective shield of immunisation against an infectious disease.
Vaccination beyond childhood
According to Lataillade, people tend to believe that vaccination was only for children.
Although it is true that vaccination in children is vital, she said the action does not just stop there.
“Vaccination beyond childhood brings significant benefits to the individual, community, and socio-economic levels.
“The life-course approach to vaccination recognises the role of immunisation as a strategy to prevent diseases and maximise health over one’s entire life, regardless of an individual’s age.”
To highlight the tremendous impact of vaccines Lataillade gave a low-down on how vaccination saves lives at every stage of life:
Life-course immunisation ― from pregnancy to childhood, adolescence, adulthood to elderlyhood
Vaccination during pregnancy can benefit a mother and her baby, as pregnant women are more likely to experience complications from flu, including premature birth than the general population.
Other illnesses such as pertussis (a highly contagious respiratory disease) also poses a serious risk to newborn babies, and vaccinating their moms during pregnancy will actually protect them until they are old enough to be vaccinated.
Vaccination during childhood, on the other hand, allows kids to be protected against 14 life-threatening diseases at a time when they are most vulnerable to infection.
When the child becomes adolescent, they may be even more prone to vaccine-preventable diseases, hence the human papillomavirus vaccine is most effective when given in early adolescence.
Youngsters tend to live in close communities (boarding school, university) where meningococcal disease is a major threat, hence, immunising teenagers against meningococcal bacteria will protect them and the wider population.”
For the uninitiated, meningococcal disease causes the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord to become inflamed.
The disease has a high mortality rate if untreated.
As the youth enter adulthood stage, they become prone to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, lung and cardiovascular diseases ― making them more likely to develop serious complications from vaccine-preventable illnesses, including flu or pneumococcal disease.
To reduce the risk of hospitalisation or worse consequences, immunisation may be the best solution to prevent infection.
Older people, on the other hand, have a less active immune system and are at higher risk of infection with potential devastating consequences ― not only hospitalisation but death.
With the growing number of people aged 60 years or older, vaccination against influenza, pneumonia and pertussis has become a key element of healthy aging.
Thinking beyond Covid-19 vaccines
According to Lataillade, the introduction of vaccination programs has led to dramatic decreases in disease, disability, and death from many infectious diseases.
However, she noted that history has shown that a decrease in immunisation coverage sets the stage for the reappearance of diseases in previously protected populations.
“In Malaysia, last year we saw the resurgence of polio in Sabah, diphtheria in central Malaysia and more recently we have been particularly hit by the last flu season in Q1 of 2020.”
As the world focuses on critically-important new vaccines for the Covid-19 disease, Lataillade said it was highly essential to ensure routine vaccinations were not missed.
“Many children have not been vaccinated during the global pandemic, leaving them at risk of serious diseases like measles, polio, diphtheria, tetanus and flu.
“We are all at risk in front of infectious diseases, with sometimes dramatic outcomes such as hospitalisations, impairment and deaths.”
Breaking the stigma
With stigma surrounding Covid-19 vaccination mounting online, Sanofi Pasteur together with medical bodies, government agencies and non-governmental organisations were hard at work to clear up misconceptions and encourage people to get their jabs.
The company has embarked on educational campaigns and public service announcements to educate the public on the value of vaccinations and the importance of routine immunisations ― which certainly requires multi-stakeholder efforts for a coordinated result at national level.
Its efforts include educational activities to promote childhood vaccination and a public awareness campaign in protecting the elderly.
Sanofi Pasteur is one of the world's leading companies devoted entirely to vaccines to offer protection against a wide range of infectious diseases for people around the world.
The company supplies one billion doses of vaccines to people around the world each year and aims to save people from vaccine-preventable diseases.
Statistics show that 1.5 million deaths could be avoided with improved vaccination coverage each year.