PAHO/ WHO Jamaica, Bermuda & The Cayman Islands, April 2018 - The countries of the region are celebrating the history and success of vaccination by observing the 16th anniversary of Vaccination Week in the Americas during the week of April 21-28. This week we are reminded of our joint mission to ensure that all persons, especially young children, receive their vaccinations at the right time within their life course.

Jamaica and its Caribbean neighbours have, for years, been global leaders in the goal to eradicate diseases through vaccination. At the 2012 World Health Assembly, Caribbean leaders led a resolution to strengthen immunizations and act through coordinated efforts to promote the value of vaccination. This led to the birth of World Immunization Week and this week we also observe its 6th anniversary. 

Vaccination week poster celebrating nurses as vaccination heroes
Vaccination week poster celebrating nurses as vaccination heroes

The Pan American Health Organization is proud to collaborate with Ministries of Health this Vaccination Week, and to tell the story of the benefits of vaccines and immunization. When all persons receive the vaccines they need, and when immunization services are effectively integrated within other public health services, the result is a stronger defense against diseases for children and adults and essentially a more healthy and stable population.

The Pan American Health Organization established the Expanded Programme on Immunization in all countries in the Americas including the Caribbean, 40 years ago. The success of this programme in the Caribbean is evidenced by the fact that the last cases of locally transmitted vaccine-preventable diseases were newborn tetanus in 2001, rubella (German measles) in 2000, congenital rubella syndrome in 1999, diphtheria in 1995, measles in 1991 and polio in 1982.

Polio is now 99% eradicated from the world and deaths from measles have decreased by over 80%. That is the power of vaccination.

Today's mothers and grandmothers may not have and may never see diseases like these. Fortunately, many families will now never know how devastating they can be, especially for little boys and girls.  These diseases can lead to long term disability or even death.  There are no cures for most of these diseases and treatment is only through supportive care and management of complications.

Is Jamaica and the Caribbean at risk for these diseases re-emerging on their shores? The simple answer is yes!

The region has not had polio for over 35 years and measles for over 26 years, but this has contributed to some level of complacency regarding vaccination against these diseases.

The region of the Americas has eliminated these vaccine-preventable diseases, but unlike smallpox, they have not, been eradicated from the world.

International travel and tourism still puts countries of the Caribbean at great danger for these diseases and creates a real risk of them once again gaining a foothold in the countries.

The Caribbean is a premier tourist destination receiving over 25 million international visitors through stopover and cruise ship visits in 2016 alone. This industry is the number one contributor to the GDP of the Caribbean with a share of almost 5% according to the World Travel and Tourism Council's report entitled Travel and Tourism, Economic Impact 2017 published in March 2017. This trend is only expected to increase and by the year 2027, it is predicted that the contribution from travel and tourism will be 17.7% of the Caribbean's GDP.

The Caribbean receives visitors and immigrants from all over the world; many coming from countries where measles and rubella are everyday occurrences. Although only three countries of the world are now considered to still have locally-transmitted polio, the Caribbean is still at risk for this disease as the countries' involvement in global sports, religious and trade events, increases the risk of possible transmission from one person to another. Today, travelers can move from one continent to another in under 24 hours and be carrying viruses unknown to them. The transmission of disease from one country to the next is therefore a real possibility. 

With the ever-increasing voices against vaccinations and the resulting decline in coverage for vaccines in countries throughout the world, outbreaks of measles, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases are on the rise. In the past year, the number of measles cases occurring in Europe was four times that of the previous year (2016). Measles continues to thrive in all other continents of the world and the countries of the Americas including the Caribbean have not been spared from its importation. For the first three months of 2018, eleven countries in the Americas reported measles cases. In ten of these countries, cases were imported or related to imported cases. This compares to only four countries reporting cases in all of 2017. The on-going outbreak of measles (including deaths in children) in one of the countries of the Americas is a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring adequate protection of the population to prevent such outbreaks even with the advent of imported cases.

The Pan American Health Organization through its Technical Advisory Group on vaccination urges countries to achieve and maintain at least 95% coverage for all the vaccines in use in every community or district and not just at the national level. Only then, can adequate protection of the entire population be assured.  In addition, countries must strengthen their systems for early detection and management of imported cases and establish rapid response teams to investigate and control outbreaks. Since the Caribbean has been certified free of polio, measles and rubella, just one confirmed case of any of these diseases would be considered an outbreak.

Vaccination is the only defense against vaccine preventable diseases; vaccinations have and continue to save the lives of over 1.5 million children across the globe each year. Through the enhanced activities of Vaccination Week since its inception in 2003, more than 720 million persons have benefited from vaccinations against a wide range of diseases.

As the 16th anniversary of Vaccination Week in the Americas is being observed, it is time to look back on what has been achieved and not take the successes for granted.Strengthen your defense! #GetVax #VaccinesWork.

Read more about vaccinations and immunizations here.