Childhood Immunization: true investment in the health of nations
Washington, DC, March 28, 2002 (PAHO) - Vaccination to control and eradicate communicable diseases has a long history, dating back to 1796 when the first smallpox vaccine was developed. Today, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) continues to promote immunization for all children in the Americas, sooner rather than later.
Without a doubt, childhood immunization is the most cost-effective health intervention, experts say.
"The vast majority of studies that compare the cost of health interventions with their effectiveness and the benefits they provide have shown vaccination as the most cost-effective and efficient," said Dr. Ciro de Quadros, director of the Division of Vaccines and Immunization at PAHO.
PAHO has been working with the governments of the region to increase the political commitment to immunization. "Vaccines are the only intervention to date that have been successful in the eradication of a disease, as was the case with smallpox, and we are on the way to elimination of polio worldwide," added Dr. de Quadros.
According to PAHO experts, the main obstacles to immunizing all children in all the countries of the region are the lack of vaccination laws that set up specific, independent budgets to buy vaccines and administrative problems that have an impact on efficient distribution of financial and human resources.
Vaccination to prevent diseases has been used as a medical procedure for the last 200 years. Although little about immunization was known at the time, an English physician, Dr. Edward Jenner, made an observation that gave rise to the first vaccination in 1796.
Jenner had observed that many milkmaids had contracted bovine smallpox, a cow disease that causes a very mild affliction in human beings. He noted that these women rarely contracted human smallpox, a much more severe and usually fatal disease that was rampant at the time.
To determine if there was a connection between the two diseases, Jenner took a sample from a smallpox lesion on the hand of a milkmaid and inoculated a child. Several weeks later Jenner again inoculated the child, this time with an infectious sample of deadly human smallpox. The child did not contract the disease and was protected agains smallpox.
From this success, Jenner concluded that the end result of vaccination would be "smallpox annihilation." His prediction came true in 1977 when the World Health Organization declared the eradication of smallpox.
These were the roots of today's sophisticated practice of vaccination: a rural doctor's office. Vaccination has evolved into a very specialized technology, with scientists in government, universities, and industrial research laboratories working together to develop new, safer, and more effective vaccines to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
Although there have been notable successes, such as global smallpox eradication, the eradication of polio from the Americas, and a huge effort underway for global polio eradication, the scientific community has many challenges ahead with regard to vaccination against communicable diseases, of which AIDS is perhaps the most notable.
However, the Americas face another challenge: that of making sure existing vaccines reach all children in the countries of the region. In addition to the political commitment, there are other serious impediments such as the lack of an adequate infrastructure in the most remote areas to maintain vaccines at the necessary temperature so that they conserve their effectiveness.
On the other hand, a complete vaccination schedule for each child requires a minimum of five visits to a health center or doctor, a difficult task for inhabitants of remote regions.
PAHO's Dr. Alleyne has asked "all the parents, mothers, and tutors of children in all the countries of the Americas to ensure that every child under 5 is vaccinated. We are all responsible for the health of our peoples, and for protecting our children against diseases that are easily preventable by vaccination."
PAHO, which also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization, was established officially in 1902 and is the oldest health organization in the world. It works on with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and raise the living standards of their peoples.
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