The value of vaccines is forgotten - Keith Roulston editorial
The World Health Organization declared the end to COVID-19 global health emergency last week, a decision that many Canadians had already made on their own.
That doesn’t mean that the danger is over. During the week ending with May 2, 84 Canadians died of COVID-19 and 5,207 cases were reported; Ontario led the way with 1,702. In total, Canada has recognized 4.7 million cases, with who knows how many cases not reported, and 52,037 deaths during the pandemic.
In comparison to our American neighbours, we’ve done well. As of April 26 more than 1.1 million Americans had died from COVID-19 with 104 million cases. The U.S. population is about nine times greater than Canada’s so a comparison is that more than twice as many Americans have died and nearly three times as many suffered COVID-19.
Americans were much more resistant to health and safety warnings than Canadians, of course. Leaders like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis preached against it. The more American a Canadian politician was, the more likely to oppose vaccination – such as Alberta Premier Danielle Smith, who backed people protesting Canadian regulations at the U.S. border.
Meanwhile, closer to home, memories are fading about the pandemic and protests against it at border crossings and the near shutdown of Parliament Hill by anti-vaccine protesters that lasted for weeks. Closer to home, a trip to Auburn has seen Canadian flags along the road, in protest against the vaccine, but some of the flags have become a little worn over time.
But according to Unicef, fewer Canadians believe in the importance of childhood vaccines than in the past, as the agency warns about the growing threat of preventable diseases because of reluctance to get vaccinations.
Most Canadians - the study says 82 per cent - still say vaccinations for children are important, but that number has dropped 8.2 per cent since COVID-19.
“It’s a disturbing trend,” says David Morley, president and CEO of Unicef Canada, as he notes 67 million children around the world missed out on vaccinations during the pandemic, which is already linked to an upswing in cases of measles and polio. “There’s a risk that more children are going to die who don’t have to die because these levels of vaccine hesitancy are going up.”
Around the world, the spread of vaccine-preventable illness is on the rise and leading to severe outcomes, particularly in low-income countries. The Unicef report found that in 2022, cases of measles around the world doubled from the year before. And there was an eightfold increase in the number of children paralyzed from polio around the world from 2019 to 2021, compared with the previous three-year period.
During the pandemic, regular access to vaccines has been disrupted around the world as a result of closings of health care facilities or the need for staff to divert resources to COVID-19 responses. While many countries, including Canada, are now focusing efforts on catch-up programs to make up for lagging vaccine-coverage rates, protection against some infectious diseases remains too low.
For instance, data released from Public Health Ontario in February found that, even after a catch-up program, only 23 per cent of 12-year-olds were fully vaccinated against human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical and other forms of cancer.
“Catch-up programs, they don’t always work if people don’t want to be caught up,” David Morley said.
If you’re my age, such news is discouraging. Most people today have not seen the devastation polio, for instance, can do. Growing up in Lucknow, when I needed my skates sharpened, I went to a man who was paralyzed from the waist down who repaired shoes and sharpened skates. We were so thrilled when a vaccine to prevent polio was developed by Jonas Salk in 1955. Mobile polio clinics quickly immunized thousands of us, ending the threat of polio, which killed hundreds in Ontario each year for decades. The pressure was on to help the rest of the world. It’s estimated 350,000 people died of polio worldwide in 1988, but that dropped to 33 in 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, if you’re my age, having lived through polio and measles epidemics that devastated earlier times, it’s discouraging to see that COVID-19 actually persuaded a greater number of people that they didn’t need vaccinations. The thing about death rates is that we never know how many people are alive today because they got vaccinated who would have died if they hadn’t.
Still, as the death rates because of diseases like polio show, many people will enjoy a full life they wouldn’t have if they’d never been vaccinated.