This week is World Immunisation Week, giving us a chance to celebrate the tremendous impact of vaccines on the world.
Vaccinations are widely recognised as one of the most successful and cost-effective health interventions around. Because they take effect before someone falls ill, they break the chain of transmission, negating the need for treatment and saving the life of the vaccinated person as well as the lives of the people who they might otherwise have infected.
With the help of vaccines, the world was able to eradicate smallpox, a horrific a disease that claimed an estimated 500 million lives in the 20th century. There hasn’t been a single case since 1977. To get from 15 million deaths a year to 0 is nothing short of incredible. We’re on the cusp of doing the same again, with experts promising that we are just ‘one last push’ away from consigning polio to history too.
Getting here took a lot of hard work. Most of us will be familiar with images of the mass immunisation campaigns that save millions of children’s lives each year. Fewer people are aware of the decades of research it took to get us to that point.
To get to the discovery of polio immunity to a safe and effective vaccine took over 50 years of clinical research and lots of failed attempts. At a time when polio cases were on the rise throughout the USA, finding a vaccine became a national mission. President Roosevelt, who had himself been left wheelchair-bound by the disease, launched the “March of the Dimes”, asking children and parents to donate ten cents each to fund the vital clinical trials that led to an effective vaccine.
Now that we’re within reach of eradicating polio for good, I’m sure all those now-adult investors would agree that it was ten cents well spent.
In the case of diseases like TB and HIV, we’re a lot further away from those mass immunisation campaigns we’re so familiar with. Scientists are working hard to try and discover a vaccine that works, and while we’ve made impressive progress in the last few years, we’ll have to test lots of different candidates before we find a vaccine that works safely, reliably and effectively around the world. That demands sustainable and sizeable funding.
But investing now is absolutely worth it. TB remains the world’s deadliest infectious disease, killing 1.7 million people each year, including 374 000 people who were also HIV positive. Every day, 5.000 people are newly infected with HIV.
Product development partnerships like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and Aeras are bringing together researchers, funders and pharmaceutical companies to advance the best science and work towards a common goal of eradicating TB and HIV for good. You can read more about the amazing science being conducted all over the world here and here.
The Sustainable Development Goal 3 aims to ‘ensure health lives and promote well-being for all ages’. While Goal 3.3 focuses on increasing treatment coverage for people with HIV, TB and other communicable diseases, Goal 3.8 looks to a time beyond 2030. It calls on Member States to “support the research and development of vaccines and medicines for the communicable and non-communicable diseases that primarily affect developing countries”. In doing so, the Global Goals learn an important historical lesson: to sustainably eradicate a disease, we need to invest in research now. The return-on-investment in human and financial terms promises to be immense.