'Long Life for all: in pursuit of a long life well lived'. Few would argue with these phrases, which are the theme of this year’s World Immunisation Week led by the World Health Organization.
COVID-19 has focused our minds on just how life-giving vaccines can be. Many people will have read stories about really difficult experiences of having the virus, or have lived themselves with what is now thankfully a vaccine-preventable disease. Severe illness and tragic deaths have been so near at hand in a way that many of us have never experienced from measles or diphtheria.
Yet, the realities are much the same. Without the routine immunisation schedule the fears which were present for coronavirus would also have been true for many more diseases in our lifetimes. In contrast to COVID-19, which seldom leads to long lasting poor outcomes among children, for most other vaccine-preventable diseases children are often the worst affected.
Measles, rubella, diphtheria and polio were all diseases that overwhelmingly affected children prior to vaccines being introduced, and still do today in many other parts of the world. Even in Scotland, we don’t need to go back too far to see large outbreaks of meningococcal disease (1990s) or whooping cough (1970s) where parents feared apparently indiscriminate death. Vaccination has enabled these fears to be removed, with life no longer being cut short. And this is true for people long beyond childhood. Cervical cancer, which had highest rates in young women, is now preventable by HPV vaccination, a lifeline that has been extended to other cancers, now that the vaccine is offered to both boys and girls.
Vaccination can also add life to our years. While the life changing after-effects of meningococcal disease are stark, there are also other diseases where massive strides in quality of life have been made. Vaccination against shingles may be the very thing that enables an older person to go on living independently through prevention of chronic pain. Similarly, annual flu vaccination enables people with underlying health conditions to have the best chance in ensuring they are not further compromised by this seasonal infection.
World Immunisation Week highlights that we all deserve a chance at a fulfilling life.
Vaccines might not get credit for that first kiss.
That winning goal.
That special day.
That final hug.
But their worth isn't just measured in doses given.
It's in minutes given back.
And lives prolonged.