Decades of research have proven how important immunization is to public health. Not only do vaccines keep families safe from preventable illnesses, they also stop diseases from turning into epidemics. Despite the scientific evidence, though, more and more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children. Still, even with families opting out of inoculation, a record number of children were vaccinated in 2017, new global data has shown, but millions are still missing out.
Last year, more than 120 million kids were immunized globally, including additional 4.6 million infants receiving vaccinations compared to 2010, according to global immunization estimates released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF on Monday. That translates roughly to 9 out of every 10 children receiving at least one dose of the vaccine to protect against diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, otherwise known as the DTP vaccine, the WHO-UNICEF report found.
WHO and UNICEF also tracked other successes in their annual immunization estimates. Global coverage against measles and rubella, for example, jumped by 17 percent over the last few years — from 35 percent in 2010 to 52 percent in 2017, according to the joint report. That rate increased for two reasons: 167 countries have included a second dose of the measles vaccine as part of their routine immunization schedule, and 162 countries now use rubella vaccines.
Another major improvement, according to WHO and UNICEF: 79 countries introduced the human papillomavirus — or HPV — vaccine.
Romper reached out to UNICEF for comment, but did not hear back in time for publication.
Still, despite these successes, nearly 20 million children were not vaccinated last year, the WHO-UNICEF report showed. Of these kids, 40 percent — or almost 8 million — live in what are considered humanitarian and fragile settings, such as countries affected by conflict. There is also a growing number of unvaccinated children from middle-income countries, where marginalization and inequality act as barriers to immunization, particularly for people living in low-income households, according to WHO and UNICEF.
To that latter point, it's somewhat of a catch-22. Poverty can keep parents and children from being able to access certain vaccines. But recent research showed that vaccines can actually keep people out of poverty.
A Harvard University study published in February in the journal Health Affairs estimated that increased investments in vaccination over a 15-year period could prevent up to 36 million deaths and 24 million cases of medical impoverishment in low- and middle-income countries.
Researcher Stéphane Verguet, assistant professor of global health at Harvard University, said in a news release at the time:
This study explicitly points at how investing in vaccines in low- and middle-income countries can have a broad health and economic impact. Policy makers should look at targeted vaccine programs as powerful mechanisms for improving health equity and reducing poverty.
In order to reach all children with much-needed vaccines, WHO and UNICEF estimate that about 20 million additional children would need to be vaccinated with three doses of the DTP vaccine, 45 million more kids would need to receive a second dose of the measles vaccine, and 76 million additional youth would need to be inoculated with 3 doses of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine.
But realizing universal immunization coverage is not going to be an easy feat. It would take significant effort on the part of countries. They would need to work to strengthen their health care systems and boost investments in their national immunization programs, among other crucial steps, WHO and UNICEF stated in their joint report.
Research shows that vaccines are life-saving, and keep widespread epidemics from occurring. And for those reasons alone, vaccines need to be available to every person, everywhere.