April 17, 2013:
The World Health Organisation (WHO) -United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) recommendation for large scale vaccination of children to prevent them from contracting pneumonia and diarrhoea can be expected to kick up a storm. The recommendation has come in the wake of a recent study published in medical journal Lancet, which draws attention to pneumonia and diarrhoea emerging the main killers (28 per cent) of children under the age of five.
According to the study in 2011, diarrhoea killed 7 lakh children under five and pneumonia 13 lakh. Of the children who died of diarrhoea, 72 per cent were less than 2 years old as were 81 per cent of children who died of pneumonia. The figures for India are worrying, with diarrhoea accounting for 12 per cent of all child deaths and
pneumonia for 23 per cent.
WHO and Unicef have launched an Integrated Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Pneumonia and Diarrhoea (GAPPD), which aims at introducing new vaccines against pneumococcal bacteria and rotavirus to cover most children by 2025. In doing so, the UN agencies are hoping to reduce child deaths worldwide. However, vaccination against diarrhoea and pneumonia must not be treated as though it is a magic bullet. Indian public health experts are pointing out that vaccination as a preventive tool is based on the flawed understanding of a single germ being the cause of a disease when in reality diseases such as diarrhoea are caused not only by multiple strains of a virus but also dirty water and poor sanitary conditions. Thus India needs to figure out whether the UN plan is the best way to prevent diarrhoea and pneumonia.
The world bodies’ plan to prevent these diseases among children might be well intended. However, we need to be wary of the influence of pharmaceutical companies in determining the global health agenda and priority of immunisation programmes. Vaccines account for a major proportion of the pharmaceutical industry’s billion dollar business. Indian pharma companies in fact supply a large proportion of the world’s vaccines. The government needs to chart out its immunisation plan after giving serious thought to what works best for the well-being of its children, rather than the financial health of the pharmaceutical industry. Improving the quality of drinking water and putting in place better sewage and garbage disposal could be a far more potent and less expensive way of fighting killer diseases. This approach could in fact help prevent several water-borne diseases.
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