Tackling infectious diseases; how can vaccines help?

This week is all about one thing: immunization. During the global immunization week awareness is created about the critical importance of full immunization throughout life.

The spread of infectious diseases is a growing problem around the world. As a result of the current globalization, the risk of spreading infectious diseases is even higher than before! So what can we do to prevent further spread? Immunization! After clean water, vaccines are considered one of the best infection-reducing interventions.

Vaccines are biological preparations that can stimulate an individual’s immune system to develop acquired immunity to a pathogen. This means that as a result of vaccination a person will not be susceptible to the infections that are caused by the pathogen anymore. During the past decades, more and more vaccines have been developed to prevent death and suffering related to measles, polio, pneumonia, diarrhoea, whooping cough and other infectious diseases. To put this in numbers: the WHO estimated that at least 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015 have been prevented and millions of lives were protected from being infected by an infectious disease. Impressive, isn’t it? But how do vaccines help tackling infectious diseases?

If we look at the individual level, a vaccinated individual will be protected to the infectious disease before exposure to the infectious disease. In this way the individual will not suffer from the damaging, potentially deadly effects of the pathogen. Vaccines also have an impressive impact on society as a whole as well. When a large portion of a community is immunized against an infectious disease, there is so little opportunity for an outbreak that those not eligible for certain vaccines are protected as well. This is called community immunity.

One of the biggest successes of vaccination is the eradication of smallpox, which means the pathogen cannot re-emerge unless a reservoir exists. In an ideal situation the goal for any immunization programme would be to eradicate the pathogen. However, this requires a high percentage of the global population that has acquired immunity for a long period of time. Something easier to achieve is elimination, which means that an pathogen is eliminated at a local level, but without global eradication.

You might already have concluded from what you've read before that the benefits of vaccination extend beyond the individual, but help to protect whole societies against the spread of diseases. However, this calls for a critical amount of individuals to be vaccinated. Unfortunately, this is complicated by antivaccine movements, which express their concerns about vaccine safety. As a result, misleading information is presented on the internet. However, vaccines have an excellent safety rate as is shown by independent research of WHO experts. The pathogens causing illness are still here and can be passed on to non-protected individuals. With more and more people having the means to travel around the globe, one can imagine how easy it is to spread these infections. Don’t hate, but vaccinate.

More information about vaccine safety can be found on the Vaccine Safety Net.

Kim van Daalen is the National Public Health Officer 2016-2017. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Sciences and currently studies Cancer & Stem Cell Biology at Utrecht University.

Kim van Daalen