Last month, India celebrated a milestone for the nation. For the past three years, India has not had a single case of polio, making the country officially polio-free. This is a landmark achievement for both the Indian government and the volunteers who have promoted the benefits of vaccinations and dispelled scaremongering. The same cannot be said for preventable diseases in both the West and Africa. In recent years, preventable disease outbreaks increased greatly due to a fear of vaccinations and inept responses from national governments. The Council on Foreign Relations has released a report and interactive map demonstrating the rise in preventable diseases. It’s time to follow India’s lead and reassert that these diseases are preventable in practice, not just in theory.
When 191 member states signed the Millennium Development Goals, the objectives did not seem insurmountable, with 15 years to achieve them. Now, with the deadline soon approaching, it appears far more unlikely that any politician or leader will be able to claim that the MDGs have been a complete triumph. There have been notable successes with the decline of HIV/AIDS cases, and the number of people with HIV receiving treatment has increased tenfold since 2002. However, for other diseases, the same cannot be said.
Nongovernmental organizations and volunteers are still reeling from the effects of spurious articles from the discredited British physician Andrew Wakefield who, in 1998, published a paper in The Lancet, a British medical journal, which falsely linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with the appearance of autism in children. It was later discovered that Wakefield had entirely fabricated his research and no such link had ever existed. But this still has not stopped fear mongers, including high-profile actress Jenny McCarthy, from trumpeting Wakefield’s fictitious research.
For each new person promoting falsehoods about vaccines, the MDGs become that much harder to accomplish. India, a country known for its political dysfunction, has achieved extraordinary success by setting clear policy goals with adequate levels of funding and clear lines of responsibility. Last year, in the span of just five days, 172 million children received the polio vaccine. Political leaders and NGOs alike should take note of India’s success and pave their own way to eradicate preventable diseases, engaging directly with the vaccine skeptics. As Deepak Kapur, chairman of India National PolioPlus Committee, stated to The New York Times, “The success of India, the fact that India can do it against all odds and expectations, is a phenomenal achievement. Now, the lessons from India can be transferred. And it proves that it can be done elsewhere.”
Harry Brown is a staff columnist. Email him at [email protected]