While unpleasant, the quick sting of a vaccine jab could potentially save you from life-threatening illness. Y investigates the debate on both sides of the table when it comes to vaccination as a matter of choice – or a public health requirement.
The difference between being immunized or avoiding the sting of its needle can, sometimes, be a matter of life or death.
Vaccinations have, over their centuries of existence, proven themselves; saving countless lives and continuing to do so from otherwise incurable diseases that have the power to cripple nations and their people for generations – and leave many more fighting for their lives.
Diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, Hepatitis (and its harmful strands), influenza, and many other diseases form a long list of infections among those that could potentially harm an individual or take their life.
Take the matter of Sara*, who contracted polio when she was only eight months old, prior to her vaccination.
Sara, now 30, was initially diagnosed with polio by the local health authorities and spent much of her life in a quarantine ward. That made her one among 118 polio cases in 1989 in Oman and, worse still, she continues to suffer from its effects to this day.
Having experienced symptoms of the disease on the sixth day of its incubation period, Sara is thankful to not be paralysed from the virus. Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a disease caused by poliovirus and is spread from person to person, typically through contaminated water.
It can attack the nervous system and, in some instances, lead to paralysis. Although there’s no cure, there is a safe and effective vaccine.
Her father (who wishes to remain anonymous) tells us [translated from Hindi]: “I’ll always hold Sara close to my heart. She is my baby – and what she’s going through is because of our mistake and ignorance.
“We were young parents who weren’t educated about vaccinations enough, because of which our child suffers. We will take care of her until our last breath.”
But their mistake has since led them to disseminating information about vaccinations with others in their community.
Her father adds: “Today, if anyone asks us about vaccinations, we will stand for it one hundred per cent. And, after Sara’s case, all other children in our community have been vaccinated and they’re all fine till this day.”
This can largely be attributed to Oman’s polio vaccination programme, which prepares a child’s body to build antibodies against the deadly virus. As per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, almost all children (99 out of 100) who get all the recommended doses of vaccine will be protected from polio.
This has resulted in the global eradication of polio cases by 99 per cent, though Type 1 polio is still prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan and has infected a total of 88 people this year.
But polio is only one of many diseases that vaccinations can help prevent.
To understand how a vaccine works, we speak to Dr. Askar Kukkadi, a senior consultant in pediatrics at Starcare Hospital who is also a member of the Royal College of Pediatrics & Child Health, in the UK. He says: “Vaccination is the process of administering an antigenic material – which we call a vaccine – into an individual’s body to develop their immune system and boost immunity against a foreign pathogen.
“Vaccines are effective and, without any doubt, have helped a great deal in reducing the number of diseases that would normally have no cure such as hepatitis B, polio, and some 25 life-threatening diseases in total.”
He’s right. As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent diseases, as it helps an individual’s immune system to recognise pathogens such as viruses and bacteria – and fight them.
The mechanism, says Dr. Kukkadi, is incredibly simple. “For something that will take only minutes to administer, it can save you a lifetime of worry and pain. There’s really no reason to skip a vaccination; it’s a crime in today’s day and age to do so.
“By doing so, not only are you putting yourself at risk of contracting diseases, you could also pass it on to your future generations – and in turn undo the efforts of doctors across the world who are fighting to stop the disease from transmitting across a global scale.”
Despite that, there’s an increase in the number of anti-vaccination communities across the globe, including a handful of those in Oman who believe the negatives of a vaccination often outweigh its positives.
In an earlier interview with Y, Sameera* al Mahrooqi, a 32-year-old Omani and mother-of-four had stated her concerns on vaccinations – citing an allergic reaction to neomycin, an ingredient in the hepatitis B vaccination, during her childhood.
She told us: “I don’t remember much but my parents tell me about how I had seizures three times after the vaccination. Moreover, I also developed hives on my face – and it keeps recurring up to an extent that I’ve grown to detest vaccination in general.”
Sameera has since avoided inoculations and remains among the 2.8 per cent of the population in Oman who haven’t completed their courses.
In our investigation on the topic, Y learns that both expats and Omanis could face strict punishment if they fail to have their child vaccinated. As per Article 19 of the Child Law (Royal Decree 22/2014), a child shall have the right to free immunisation with serums and vaccines against contagious diseases in government health institutions.
Having said that, not all vaccines are mandatory – like the flu vaccine that can potentially fight the influenza virus.
And even as flu season kicks off in Oman with mercury levels dropping to the mid-20-degree-Celsius mark across the country, not many visit their local health centres for their annual flu jab we learn – while even others are let alone unaware of the existence of such a vaccine. Moreover, those who are aware of it refuse to take the jab owing to its ‘high cost’ and ‘lack of necessity’.
But what may set you back RO4 (plus consultation charges) at a private hospital initially could save your life – and life, as Joshua Caleb Anderson’s parents know, is priceless.
Joshua, aged 8, passed away from H1N1 influenza on March 21, 2018, and was Oman’s last known victim to the virus. But, as his parents told us in an interview with Y, his life could’ve been saved if he had taken the flu jab.
Hazel Anderson, Joshua’s mother said in her statement: “We were behind in our knowledge of the influenza vaccine and never had taken it before. A part of us coming forward to talk to Y Magazine is to share the message that the flu jab is available in Oman and it costs RO4 in places like Muscat Private Hospital.
“You’ll need to check with the doctors or pharmacists whether there are stocks before heading there as there’ll be a consultation charge of RO25. Though, we can tell you that these jabs are available all over Muscat.”
As per the WHO, the flu vaccine contains inactive or weakened strains of the influenza virus and must be administered either nasally (available only in some countries) or via an injection.
However, its effectiveness is largely questionable, as a 2012 study titled ‘Efficacy and Effectiveness of Influenza Vaccines’ in the US remarked that the vaccine was only effective 67 per cent of the time. Still, the disease affects anywhere between five and 15 per cent of the global population every year.
Statistics of flu jabs in Oman aren’t readily available, though it’s known that 291 cases of influenza patients were reported in the country in 2018 – which is a drop of 71 per cent from the previous year.
And, as Imran al Balushi, a pharmacist based in Muscat says: “A large part of this drop is due to increased education on flu vaccinations, and better etiquette. Influenza is an easy virus to transmit, and much of it can be eradicated by simply following healthy practices… such as isolating yourself when you’re ill.
“Still, as per data I compiled from the CDC in the US, I can say that nearly 80 to 90 per cent of the world’s flu cases can be stopped because of herd immunity. This can reduce the number of fatalities too every year. Currently, it’s believed that 12,000 to 79,000 people have died from influenza since 2010, worldwide.
“From those numbers alone, we can tell how important it is to vaccinate people for flu every year from the disease.
“Vaccination has received some bad press in recent times, mostly from the anti-vaccination groups in Europe and the US.
“But the reality is that vaccines can be treated as medicines too. And they happen to be some of the safest of them all. While they could cause mild interactions with your body – such as causing mild fever, headaches, and rash at the injection site – the chances of them causing serious harm is extremely small.
“Also, vaccines aren’t given to children with known allergies – health professionals are always up-to-date with current vaccines and how they must be administered.”
This has led to the eradication of diseases such as measles and polio, and smallpox by 99.9 per cent and 100 per cent respectively.
“I think this alone is a testament to the success of vaccines,” says al Balushi. “There’s no real excuse to not being vaccinated in this day and age. It’s the one thing all human beings around the world do in common.
“And if it amounts to the greater good of society, I can’t see why anyone must have a reason to shoot it down. The reality is simple: vaccines will be extended to many more diseases, and we’re slowly creating a world that’s resistant to a multitude of pathogens.
“We’re helping in creating stronger humans.”
*Name changed to protect identity.