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9 deadly viruses we can make a thing of the past

GAVI: Karel Prinsloo

I don’t know about you, but pretty much the only time I ever think about vaccines is when I’m filling out paperwork for a new job or planning an exciting trip to an unfamiliar location. Similarly, I generally don’t worry about getting sick.

This sense of security that I feel is a direct result of where I grew up and the incredible privilege of readily available vaccines that is easy to take for granted. Elsewhere, I know, this is not the case. Too many families around the world are faced with the reality that illness could strike at any moment, making them unable to work and care for their loved ones. When you face these daily fears, vaccines are not so easily forgotten- they’re recognized for the pivotal role they play in saving and improving lives.

Our partners at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, are at the forefront of this battle. They’re working tirelessly to ensure the world’s poor have access to vaccines so they can remain healthy and provide for their families. But their work is far from over. Several viruses exist that pose a real threat to public health. Let’s see what Gavi is doing to combat them:

1. Human Papillomavirus (HPV)

GAVI: Mithra Weerakone

When I was growing up, HPV really wasn’t talked about much, and there was generally a lot of confusion and misinformation. Now, it’s on everyone’s radar. Every year, around 266,000 women die of cervical cancer, with over 85% of these cases occurring in developing countries. The culprit? A sexually transmitted infection called HPV. That’s the bad news, but here’s the good: Immunizations exist that protect against two types of HPV that cause 70% of cervical cancer cases. The WHO recommends all girls age 9-13 receive these life-saving vaccines, and Gavi is working hard to ensure that’s the case.

2. Polio

Gates Foundation

Young people today are largely unfamiliar with polio because it is only endemic in 3 countries, but that’s no reason to dismiss it. The virus is transmitted through contaminated food and water then eventually makes its way into the nervous system. Depending on the severity of the case, polio can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. In fact, in 1 in 200 cases the infection leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs) and among these 5%-10% die when their breathing muscles are no longer capable of doing their job. While there is no cure for polio it is totally preventable with vaccines, which is why Gavi is committed to ensuring all children are immunized.

3. Japanese encephalitis (JE)

Flickr: Siebe

Unless you live or have traveled through Southeast Asia and the West Pacific, Japanese Encephalitis (JE) is relatively unknown. But for the 4 million who live in at-risk areas, it’s a real concern. Sometimes called “brain fever”, JE infects the brain and claims the lives of 20 to 30 percent of infected infants and children, with an annual mortality rate of 10,000-15,000 lives. Those who survive are sometimes left with neurological weaknesses such as paralysis, recurrent seizures, or the inability to speak. The virus is hosted by birds and transmitted through mosquitoes hanging out in breeding grounds like rice paddies-which is why it is predominant in rural communities. A specific treatment for JE currently doesn’t exist, but it is vaccine preventable so you know the Vaccine Alliance is on it.

4. Measles

Flickr: Gates Foundation

Gavi reports that before 2001, more than 750,000 children died every year from measles. The highly contagious virus has symptoms that include a high fever, severe skin rash, and a cough. By weakening the immune system, the virus makes the infected susceptible to other health problems like pneumonia and it is ultimately fatal in roughly 5% of cases. With help from the Measles and Rubella Initiative, however, fewer children are at risk. Today, 164,000 children die each year from the virus, and Gavi is committed to seeing that number continue to go down. An inexpensive vaccine that prevents the virus has been available for nearly half a century, and Gavi will continue to ensure more children have access to it.

5. Rubella

Flickr: UK Department for International Development

Today, there are around 112,000 cases of Rubella every year. When it affects children and young adults it is considered a mild illness, however it poses a real threat to pregnant women. Rubella infections that occur just before conception or during early pregnancy, can result in fetal death or birth defects including blindness, deafness, and heart defects, called Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS). Gavi states that Africa and South-East Asia are the regions with the highest number of estimated CRS cases and the lowest uptake of rubella-containing vaccine. Fortunately, that doesn’t need to be the case. The Vaccine Alliance supports the frequently unused rubella vaccine, which provides long-term protection.

6. Meningitis

Flickr: Teseum

Meningitis is an infection of the lining that covers the brain and spinal cord, causing a range of disabilities including deafness, mental retardation, paralysis, and infection. Every year, an epidemic hits what is called the “Meningitis Belt”, a region of 25 sub-Saharan countries that stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia with a total population of about 500 million people. Infants, children, and young adults face the greatest risk, and until recently existing vaccines were not very effective. To address this, Gavi teamed up with WHO, UNICEF, PATH, and the Meningitis Vaccine Project to develop the new MenAfriVac vaccine back in 2001. Within 10 short years they succeeded. Now, with Gavi’s support, Burkina Faso, Chad, Cameroon, Mali, Niger, and the northern states of Nigeria are able to purchase the new vaccine at an affordable price.

7. Pneumonia

Flickr: UNICEF/ Kiron

Meet Streptococcus pneumonia, the most common cause of pneumonia. Every year, WHO estimates that more than 500,000 young children die from pneumococcal infection, mostly in developing countries, making pneumonia the leading killer in children. But that’s not all. Pneumococcus can also lead to meningitis, sepsis (blood poisoning) and permanent deafness. Fortunately, the Vaccine Alliance has been working to accelerate the production of pneumococcal vaccines. Consequently, the world's poorest children are now receiving the newest pneumococcal vaccines nearly simultaneously with children in developed countries.

8. Rotavirus

GAVI Christ Stowers

In the developed world, diarrhoea is often thought of as nothing more than a pesky inconvenience. But trust me- it’s no laughing matter. Shocking as it may be, diarrhoea kills. Worldwide, approximately 37% of hospitalizations for diarrhoea in under-five year olds can be attributed to rotavirus. WHO estimates that 1,200 children die from rotavirus every day, and while nearly every child in the world will get the virus before turning 3, 95% of rotavirus deaths occur in low-income countries. At Global Citizen we’ve often talked about the importance of improving water quality and sanitation in combatting diarrhoea, however the type caused by rotavirus is far more contagious and resilient. The only solution is immunization, which is why Gavi plans to introduce rotavirus vaccine in more than 30 countries by 2015.

9. Yellow Fever

Flickr: UNAMID/ Ibert Gonzales

Last, but not least, we have yellow fever. The virus was nearly forgotten but has recently resurged. Today, yellow fever infects 200,000 people a year and claims the lives of 30,000 annually. Transmitted by infected mosquitoes, symptoms typically include fever, chills, loss of appetite, nausea, and muscle pains, and they can progress to liver damage (causing a yellowing of the skin), bleeding, and kidney damage. While a life-saving vaccine has been available since the 1930s, declining population immunity, climate change and deforestation have led to an increase in cases. Gavi states that, “Rapid urbanisation has exacerbated the issue by concentrating non-immune populations in settings where yellow fever virus thrives. City areas provide fertile breeding grounds for mosquito larvae: stagnant water collects in water containers, cans, tyres etc. Overcrowded housing does the rest, accelerating the viral effect”. To address this, the Vaccine Alliance provides support for routine immunisation against yellow fever, awareness campaigns in high-risk countries and emergency stockpiles in case of outbreaks.


Christina Nuñez