Confronting a new era in immunization

By John Markels, Ph.D., president, MSD Vaccines

June 11, 2020

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The series of crises we face today have left us with many questions and no easy solutions. These challenges require new levels of ingenuity, commitment, collaboration and empathy. As we embark on this path, we should ask ourselves – what can history teach us about overcoming adversity and redefining what is possible?

Few advancements in our history rival the impact of immunization against preventable diseases. It is a great triumph, a lasting testament to human ingenuity and tenacity that is rich in stories of adventure, daunting setbacks and surprising breakthroughs. From the Days of Tranquility – cease-fires negotiated in order to allow safe passage for immunization teams as they traveled to provide children with essential vaccinations – to the courageous efforts of Congolese healthcare providers delivering an investigational vaccine for Ebola in a dangerous conflict zone – the history of immunization is often one of defying the odds.

One of our greatest achievements in the field came forty years ago when smallpox was eradicated. Annihilating a virus is nearly impossible to achieve, but through a coordinated global effort that culminated in literally tracking down and isolating the last few remaining cases in remote corners of Somalia, smallpox was eliminated.

We have made extraordinary progress since that historic moment, but now there are troubling signs that we are entering a new era of adversity in immunization, defined by a range of setbacks from the novel coronavirus pandemic. On May 8, the same day the world marked the 40th anniversary of smallpox eradication, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that childhood vaccination rates plunged as a result of stay-at-home orders for many states. The same scenario is playing out in countries around the world.

Mother and Daughter

What are the consequences of millions of children missing vaccinations recommended by public health authorities? It’s still unclear, but diseases that were once largely under control may be poised for a resurgence if vaccine coverage rates fall too far and for too long. As a result of delayed or cancelled doctor appointments, we could see increased outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases among young children, adolescents and adults. The public health consequences could be severe and may even be amplified should COVID-19 continue to surge among vulnerable populations. At the global level, dangerous diseases may make an alarming comeback in the absence of effective national immunization campaigns.

This scenario represents the opening of a second front in our war against the coronavirus pandemic. The risk of a resurgence in vaccine-preventable diseases threatens to erase years of public health progress and put millions at risk of infection. It’s a risk we cannot accept.

The solution to unrelenting disease is relentless invention. While the world is focused on inventing new tools to confront COVID-19, the same ingenuity and perseverance need to be applied to ensuring vaccine coverage does not falter in tandem. Health leaders around the country are working to increase public awareness of the importance of staying up to date on immunizations, especially in the midst of a pandemic. COVID-19 related restrictions are also prompting a conversation about how we can deliver vital health services, such as vaccination, while adhering to broader public health measures. These are important conversations that may help improve access to vaccines and medicines, and associated health outcomes, into the future.

Now is the time to work together to devise innovative ways for patients to receive vaccinations. Some attempts will fail, but many will succeed. It is equally important to reinforce funding support for programs that ensure vaccines reach vulnerable populations – all while reinforcing public trust in the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. At our company and others, wherever possible, we’re working with stakeholders to develop innovative approaches to meet these new challenges, focusing efforts on the continued supply of our vaccines in order to meet global demand while keeping our teams safe.

Like much of human history, the success of immunization programs is a record of individual and collective achievement. We all own a share in the legacy of health that has been built through vaccines and we all share a common responsibility to ensure that this legacy is passed on to future generations by helping to protect our families and ourselves. It’s time again for all of us to step up to the challenge.