Over 117 million children may not receive the vaccine that will save them from measles. Harris Dalrymple, PRA’s Executive Director of Scientific Affairs, offers his thoughts on these circumstances.
Make no mistake: COVID-19 is grabbing the world’s attention. As a result, it’s overshadowing other important diseases and their vaccinations. According to a recent Reuters article, the World Health Organization (WHO) “has recommended that governments temporarily pause preventive immunization campaigns, such as those against measles” due to the fight against COVID-19 and the social distancing measures necessary for healthcare workers to stay safe from infection. Consequently, over 117 million children may not receive the vaccine that will save them from measles.
Measles is a highly contagious disease that often affects children, and may be fatal. Harris Dalrymple, PRA’s Executive Director of Scientific Affairs, reflects on a time when there wasn’t a measles vaccine.
“When I was around 10 years old, I remember going to school and noticing that when the teacher called the register, my classmate Ian was absent. Ian remained absent for the next few days. The teacher eventually told us that Ian had died of measles.” This came as a shock to Dalrymple, who saw Ian just weeks prior at a “measles party,” held at the home of a friend who contracted the disease. These parties were common—they were a way for children to catch a mild version of the disease and be fine.
“I recall having had measles—it was not pleasant,” Dalrymple says. “I was off school for about 2 weeks—my longest ever absence.”
Measles is just one of many diseases that can be prevented by vaccines today, saving many lives. While clean water, good hygiene, and nutrition are enormously important for health, Dalrymple emphasizes that “vaccines provide a level of protection against specific infections which nothing else can.”
Since the 1960s, child death rates from diseases like measles, mumps, and chickenpox fell substantially once vaccination was introduced. “Correlation does not prove causation—and in these cases, a scientific rationale exists to explain the correlation,” explains Darlymple. “But as a society, do we want to take a chance and go back to the days I remember as a child? I hope the answer is no.”
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is preventing people from getting the vaccinations they need. The Reuters article states that, “in many parts of Africa, medical aid projects that might normally include measles and other vaccine campaigns have stalled as countries have closed their borders and limited routine health services due to the pandemic.” While these restrictions exist to protect healthcare workers and follow social distancing measures, children are unable to receive necessary protection, making them more suspectable to dangerous diseases. According to the Measles & Rubella Initiative (M&RI), children now in 37 countries are at risk.
“The need to protect—perhaps conserve—our healthcare professionals impacts other activities.” Dalrymple says. “The supreme irony comes from the fact that millions of children may miss measles shots due to COVID-19, with measles immunization campaigns in 24 countries already delayed—and a viral disease we were on track to eliminate has been ‘saved’ by another viral disease.”
Dalrymple emphasizes the need to re-create a new civil defense to protect the general population from the impact of highly contagious diseases. Additionally, we need to consider implementing fast, efficient tools to face the current pandemic so that we can continue to vaccinate for diseases.
Despite the challenges COVID-19 has posed for being able to treat other diseases, worldwide response to COVID-19 is tackling the disease in a multitude of ways, possibly paving the way for how we’ll handle future unknown diseases. For instance, one avenue Dalrymple mentioned as being explored rapidly is the repurposing of existing and discounted drugs. “Over 20 products already approved for other indications are being assessed for COVID-19, in addition to over 30 drugs which were already in clinical development for other indications,” says Dalrymple.
This goes to show that previous clinical research has been able to lead to the development of drugs that could potentially be used to treat future, “unknown” diseases. So, while there’s been a pause on other vaccinations across the world, we may be witnessing research today that could save us from future conditions of tomorrow.
Vaccines provide a level of protection against specific infections which nothing else can.
Harris Dalrymple, Executive Director of Scientific Affairs
Dalrymple says that, in almost every walk of life, the adage “prevention is better than cure” holds true. That’s why the lack of vaccinations during the pandemic poses such a danger. “The benefits to society of effective vaccines are such that the harms—provided suitable compensation mechanisms can be readily-accessed—far outweigh risks,” states Dalrymple. “The ‘magic bullet’—a bullet which can give children life-long protection against a particular condition before they develop it—is with us for many diseases. We would be foolish not to fire those ‘bullets.’”