Measles, diphtheria, tetanus, rubella and not only. Diseases that seemed to be defeated by advances made in medicine; forgotten, listed among illnesses with no ominous prospects. Antibiotics and a few days of rest, along with anti-symptomatic treatment were enough to eliminate the problem. But it was not always like this. Who does not remember poor Beth from “Little Women” killed by scarlet fever? Or Thomas Jefferson, the father of the US homeland, struck down by dysentery? Those diseases were lethal till a few decades ago, but now they have become harmless first and foremost due to vaccinations. This giant step forward has allowed modern research to focus on diseases that are still incurable today: cancers, cardiovascular and serious respiratory pathologies.
Safety and welfare, combined with a general rise in life expectancy in the West have led to an underestimation of those old threats. Currently, we observe a gradual expansion of do-it-yourself therapies, self-diagnosis (especially with the help of forums and online portals) which translate into an ever lesser use of medical care and immunoprophylaxis. These irresponsible choices, especially when there is a child, an elderly or a disabled person involved, often turn into tragedies. Because a disease can kill or mutilate even when it is curable or avoidable. We are witnessing new cases of children who died of whooping cough or measles (the last case occurred last year at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome) and the revival of diphtheria in Spain. A slap in the face of all those who underestimate the importance of prevention.
The alarm about the dangerous decrease in vaccinations on the Italian territory was set off by the Superior Institute of Health, which asked the Regions to adopt a new national plan. “Vaccination coverage in Italy is very close to the security threshold – explained the newly elected ISS President, Walter Ricciardi -. The approval of the new National Plan for Prevention by serum – proposed by the Ministry of Health, together with the Health Council, the National Institute for Health and the Italian Drug Agency as part of the Italian regions’ coordination for prevention – cannot be put off any longer”. The data, on the other hand, speak clearly: anti-polio, anti-tetanus, anti-diphtheria, and -hepatitis (A and B) vacciantions dropped under 95% ; whereas only 86% of the population (with a decrease of 4% in a year) were immunized with the trivalent measles-mumps-rubella.
The consequences, stressed Ricciardi, affect the entire community. “If the so-called ‘flock immunity’ disappears – he reminds – increases the risk of falling ill among children who are not vaccinated, of epidemics to occur and of diseases that have been eliminated for years not to be recognized as such and treated in time”. The phenomenon, has stressed the Italian Society of Pediatrics, is already underway. “We are witnessing the return of diseases that were considered to have been eradicated – commented the President John Corsello -. An example are children dying of whooping cough, a disease that is having a resurgence among newborns because of the decline in vaccination coverage”. Which can save many lives. “Unfortunately, there is little awareness about the risk, even when it is serious, connected to lack of immunization – said the president of the Italian Drug Agency, Sergio Pecorelli -. Remember that vaccines have saved about 2 and a half million lives a year, 5 per minute; nonetheless, measles can be still fatal at present”.
But why do Italians get vaccinated less? Without doubt, some episodes reported in the news about borderline cases in which the inoculation of the serum has had harmful or even fatal effects, have contributed to raising suspicion about preventive therapies. Research is therefore called to make progress in a way that guarantees total safety to the patients who get immunized. But we cannot deny that from Edward Jenner’s first experiments on smallpox to present times, the overall balance is positive: whereas there are episodes (serious, let us not forget this) of complications after treatment, there are many others in which immunization has improved the quality of our lives. This alone should suffice to disprove some conspiracy theories that invite to boycott those plans of health intervention without worrying about the possible consequences.