[This article has been written by Elena Marbán and P. Efrain Pantoja Bustillos on the occasion of World Immunization Week]
Vaccines are one of the most effective prevention tools in public health today
Vaccines are one of the most effective prevention tools in public health today, after water purification, and one of modern civilization’s main achievements. Six years ago, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the last week of April as World Immunization Week. This year’s theme - “Protected together, #VaccinesWork” – encourages people to increase immunization coverage for the greater good.
Thanks to the Millennium Development Goals, the mortality of children under five years of age was halved between 1990 and 2015. However, this progress was unequally distributed across countries and age groups. Today, more than 40% of deaths in children under five occur during the first month of life. Because of this, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set a specific priority target: reduce by 50% the number of preventable deaths among neonates by 2030.
Today, more than 40% of deaths in children under five occur during the first month of life
We know that many of these deaths are due to infectious diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, tetanus, measles and whooping cough; most of them preventable by vaccines. The immunization schedule for children aims to achieve the best protection against diseases from the first year of life.
However, many of the vaccines cannot be administered during the first weeks of life since the new-born has not yet developed the necessary immune maturity. Paradoxically, this is a particularly vulnerable period where the risk of contracting some infectious diseases is highest.
Maternal immunization represents a unique opportunity to protect babies during their first months of life
Maternal immunization represents a unique opportunity to protect babies during their first months of life, through the transfer of maternal antibodies via the placenta. Currently, the WHO recommends the administration of three vaccines during pregnancy: seasonal flu, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). In addition, research is underway to develop vaccines against other diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus or Group B Streptococcus.
The only vaccine being implemented at a global scale is tetanus, which has drastically reduced tetanus-related cases and mortality in neonates
Despite these recommendations, the only vaccine being implemented at a global scale is tetanus, which has drastically reduced tetanus-related cases and mortality in neonates over the last years. But maternal immunization is not being implemented in the countries that most need it. This is because maternal immunization poses many challenges: access to health care access in remote areas, weak health systems, integrating maternal immunization into prenatal care and the extended vaccination programme, as well as acceptability by pregnant women, health care workers and the community.
Despite the challenges of introducing new prevention strategies, maternal immunization represents a unique opportunity to contribute to one of the main development goals and help reduce the unacceptably high number of preventable child deaths.