Is the threat of measles, polio a reality for Jamaica?

Sunday, April 29, 2018

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THE countries of the region last week celebrated the history and success of vaccination by observing the 16th anniversary of Vaccination Week in the Americas from April 21-28.

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said in a release that last week it was reminded of its joint mission to ensure that all people, especially young children, receive their vaccinations at the right time within their life course.

According to PAHO, Jamaica and its Caribbean neighbours have, for years, been global leaders in the goal to eradicate diseases through vaccination. At the 2012 World Health Assembly, Caribbean leaders led a resolution to strengthen immunisations and act through coordinated efforts to promote the value of vaccination, PAHO said. This led to the birth of World Immunization Week.

PAHO said it is proud to collaborate with ministries of health and to tell the story of the benefits of vaccines and immunisation.

“When all persons receive the vaccines they need, and when immunisation services are effectively integrated within other public health services, the result is a stronger defence against diseases for children and adults and essentially a more healthy and stable population,” the release said.

PAHO said it established the Expanded Programme on Immunisation in all countries in the Americas including the Caribbean, 40 years ago. The success of this programme in the Caribbean is evidenced by the fact that the last cases of locally transmitted vaccine-preventable diseases were newborn tetanus in 2001, rubella (German measles) in 2000, congenital rubella syndrome in 1999, diphtheria in 1995, measles in 1991, and polio in 1982, it said.

According to PAHO, polio is now 99 per cent eradicated from the world and deaths from measles has decreased by more than 80 per cent, which it insisted is the power of vaccination.

“Today's mothers and grandmothers may not have and may never see diseases like these. Fortunately, many families will now never know how devastating they can be for little boys and girls especially. These diseases can lead to long-term disability or even death. There are no cures for most of these diseases and treatment is only through supportive care and management of complications,” PAHO said.

But, as the region has not had polio for over 35 years and measles for over 26 years, PAHO said this has contributed to some level of complacency regarding vaccination against these diseases.

“Is Jamaica and the Caribbean at risk for these diseases re-emerging on their shores?” PAHO asked. “The simple answer is yes!”

The region of the Americas has eliminated these diseases, but they have not, like smallpox, been eradicated from the world,” the release continued.

PAHO said international travel and tourism still puts countries of the Caribbean at great danger for these diseases and creates a real risk of them once again gaining a foothold in the countries.

“The Caribbean is a premier tourist destination receiving over 25 million international visitors through stopover and cruise ship visits in 2016 alone. This industry is the number one contributor to the GDP (gross domestic product) of the Caribbean with a share of almost five per cent according to the World Travel and Tourism Council's report entitled Travel and Tourism, Economic Impact 2017 published in March 2017.

“This trend is only expected to increase and by the year 2027, it is predicted that the contribution from travel and tourism will be 17.7 per cent of the Caribbean's GDP,” it said.

The Caribbean receives visitors and immigrants from all over the world; many coming from countries where measles and rubella is an everyday occurrence. Although only three countries of the world are now considered to still have locally transmitted polio, PAHO said the Caribbean is still at risk for this disease as the countries' involvement, in global sporting, religious and trade events, increases the risk of possible transmission from one person to another.

“Today, travellers can move from one continent to another in under 24 hours and be carrying viruses unknown to them. The transmission of disease from one country to the next is therefore a real possibility,” the release said.

With the ever-increasing voices against vaccinations and the resulting decline in coverage for vaccines in countries throughout the world, outbreaks of measles, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough and other vaccine preventable diseases are on the rise, PAHO said.

“In the past year, the number of measles cases occurring in Europe was four times that of the previous year (2016). Measles continues to thrive in all other continents of the world and the countries of the Americas including the Caribbean have not been spared from its importation. For the first three months of 2018, 11 countries in the Americas reported measles cases. In ten of these countries, cases were imported or related to imported cases. This compares to only four countries reporting cases in all of 2017.

“The ongoing outbreak of measles (including deaths in children) in one of the countries of the Americas is a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring adequate protection of the population to prevent such outbreaks even with the advent of imported cases,” the release said.

The Pan American Health Organization, through its Technical Advisory Group on vaccination, has urged countries to achieve and maintain at least 95 per cent coverage for all the vaccines in use in every community or district and not just at the national level. PAHO said only then can adequate protection of the entire population be assured.

“In addition, countries must strengthen their systems for early detection and management of imported cases and establish rapid response teams to investigate and control outbreaks,” PAHO said. “Since the Caribbean has been certified free of polio, measles and rubella, just one confirmed case of any of these diseases would be considered an outbreak.”

Vaccination is the only defence against vaccine-preventable diseases; vaccinations have and continue to save the lives of over 1.5 million children each year, the release said. Through the enhanced activities of Vaccination Week since its inception in 2003, more than 720 million people have benefited from vaccinations against a wide range of diseases, PAHO said.

“...It is time to look back on what has been achieved and not take the successes for granted. Strengthen your defence! #GetVax #VaccinesWork.,” the release said.

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