An outbreak of measles in many European countries has prompted the Maltese health authorities to advise family doctors and parents about the preventable risks children who have not been vaccinated face. Although usually mild, measles can lead to pneumonia and even cause brain damage and blindness. In some cases, it can also lead to death.
Medical experts maintain that at least 95 per cent of people must be vaccinated to stop the spread of measles, a threshold known as “herd immunity”. With Malta experiencing a regular inflow of foreign people from different geographical areas, it is not safe to rely on herd immunity.
In some countries, it is left to the parents to decide whether to give the measles jab to their child. In most countries, two to three per cent of parents are hard line “anti-vaxxers” who refuse all vaccines to their children. Some parents were shaken by a claim, later debunked, that there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella.
As we are living in an age where most people try to enhance their medical knowledge by surfing the internet, it is commendable that Charmaine Gauci, the Public Health Superintendent, called on parents not to seek information from social media because it was not always correct. Consulting with medical professionals is the only way to get sound advice on the merits of vaccinations.
It is encouraging that many parents are heeding the health authorities’ advice and rushing to health centres to get children vaccinated. The comment given by a consultant paediatrician quoted by this newspaper that the decision of some parents who refuse to vaccinate their children is “irresponsible and illogical” needs to be heeded by all.
Different countries use different tactics to persuade parents of children who have not been vaccinated to change their minds. Some countries legislate. California, for instance, makes a full vaccination record a condition of entry to State schools. Others rely on the fine art of persuasion.
Medical research suggests there is little evidence that strict laws make a big difference to vaccination rates. Strict rules may even harden anti-inoculation attitudes among vaccine-hesitant parents. No effort should be spared by public health experts to boost confidence in the safety of vaccines and trust in the authorities that recommend them.
The tactic used by our public health experts to contact patients who were not vaccinated and remind them of the importance of getting the necessary jabs is indeed commendable. In this way, many will change their minds about refusing to be vaccinated or being complacent about the risks they run. Ultimately, everyone is free to make one’s own decisions even if every effort is made to inform the public on the merits of vaccination.
Europe has missed the deadline it had set itself in 2010 to eradicate measles. In the UK alone, so far this year 781 cases of laboratory-confirmed measles cases were reported.
Eradicating preventable diseases should be the objective of all countries, especially those that are affluent and can afford highly-effective vaccination programmes. The World Health Organisation reckons that vaccines save 2.5 million lives a year.
Work still needs to be done to eradicate measles from Europe. A jab in time is the most effective means to do so.
This is a Times of Malta print editorial
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