I would like you all to imagine a different reality. Take a moment and visualize what life would be like if 15-25 percent of the children in your town died before the age of five. The deaths aren’t easy. They are often excruciatingly painful for both the dying child and the family. You have no idea why or how this has happened.
Welcome to rural Africa. In villages people eat organically, move every day and yet die of easily treatable diseases at an incredibly disparate rate. It is rare that you see an anti-vaccination advocates in these parts. Rather, vaccination drives and healthcare advocacy tends to take center stage, and for good reason. If you watch a child suffer from measles, itís very difficult to conclude that the amount of mercury in a vaccination could be more dangerous than a disease that takes more than 100,000 lives each year.
In Uganda, where I live, 63 percent of children remain unvaccinated. When you drive into rural communities, coffins that are small, plain and built to hold children are sold on the side of the road, in plain sight. Death is neither hidden nor sterilized in these parts. In clinics, posters are nothing like those in the west, full of sweet smiling children and milestone markers. Here there are pictures of children with polio, children with measles and pictures of children who likely succumbed to their disease. Vaccinations are promoted, but rural clinics with threadbare resources donít always have these treatments in stock.
ďVaccines are the easiest form of curbing preventable diseases,Ē one health worker relays. ďPeople in the west have forgotten what polio and measles look like, so they’ve become complacent. Here, itís in your face so itís much easier to see the problem and solution side by side.Ē Indeed, disfiguring diseases such as polio are evident in the limbs of street beggars in the nationís cities. Disfiguring diseases are far more problematic in places like East Africa, where facilities such as wheelchairs, crutches and ramps are nearly nonexistent.
However, thatís not to say there isn’t some push back against vaccines in Africa. Occasionally, distrust ferments between health workers and locals who don’t always trust vaccinations. This almost always ends the same way. In 2011, fears amongst Somali parents that vaccines were causing HIV/AIDS, and sterilizing their children, caused a rapid measles outbreak in Mogadishu and Puntland. More than 100 children died during this outbreak, with the majority under the age of two. Since then UNICEF has instituted a huge vaccination drive in Somalia, which is slated to save thousands of lives.
To understand the toll that children lacking vaccinations face, we need to take a look at the staggering numbers of preventable deaths in the world. Measles often kills more than 500,000 children in one year. The same goes for tetanus, taking 200,000 lives, whereas diphtheria and pertussis often cause 300,000 deaths. Haemophilus influenzae type b, also known as Hib, kills around 450,000 children a year, causing symptoms such as pneumonia and meningitis. Meanwhile Rotavirus takes 600,000 lives every year. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable with a few pricks. In total, we are losing more than two million children each year from lack of proper vaccinations.
There is incredible evidence that proper immunization campaigns can make a huge difference in the lives of these children. After a large push to eradicate polio, the numbers of those infected dropped significantly from 350,000 cases in 1988 to 1,300 in 2004.
I would encourage those who are afraid of vaccinations to come visit rural areas in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Read the symptoms of typhoid, a disease that many of my friends have suffered from (one which I am vaccinated against), and decide if getting that jab before you depart is worth it. Would you risk being treated with IV fluids in a crowded African hospital? Or will you decide not to chance it? How devout would your commitment be if you were forced to watch real world consequences emerge in daily life?
Rural Africa is an excellent microcosm of what could happen if herd immunity in the United States is eventually lost. While there is something to be said for living naturally, and keeping unneeded chemicals out of your body, it is in no way a guarantee of health. Mother Nature is not always kind, and an incredibly efficient killer. She does not care who she kills, how old they are, or who loves them. Looking into the face of a child dying from a naturally occurring, easily treatable disease will teach you that.