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News flash: Vaccines are cheap and save millions of lives!

Maybe you’ve noticed. There are a lot of vaccine success stories out there right now (partial list below). There’s a reason for that.

The media/advocacy campaign (much of it paid for or supported by the Gates Foundation) is aimed at pushing out the value of vaccination in advance of a big meeting in London next week aimed at expanding a global project on immunization in poor countries.

See my earlier post on this initiative, GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, The biggest success story in global health you’ve never heard of. It’s also the Gates Foundation’s biggest project.

Vaccines are, without a doubt, one of the most powerful weapons against disease ever invented — because they are cheap and they prevent disease, save lives. Millions of lives every year. Imagine that!

No, seriously, I want you to think about what the world would be like without vaccines. Do you miss smallpox? Do you long for those lazy summer days with the closed public swimming pools due to polio concerns?

So, really, who can find something wrong with this big media blitz? I can.

The fact that the Gates Foundation has to help pay for all (or okay well, not all) these health experts, scientists and global health organizations (and, in fact, media) to issue new reports, analyses or news releases aimed at documenting this simple fact seems to me a symptom of a much deeper failure. It worries me. But more on that later, after the news:

The Lancet: New Decade of Vaccines

Health Affairs: Strategies for the New Decade of Vaccines

The BBC: Researchers Hope of 20 New Vaccines in next Decade

AFP: Better vaccines could save 6.4 billion lives

VOA: Saving Lives, Money with Childhood Vaccines

There are other stories focused on specific immunization projects, such as PATH’s meningitis vaccine project, reported on here by or this TED talk by Bruce Aylward on the polio eradication campaign. And there are, of course, some reports on how some American parents remain uneasy about vaccines.

The media blitz appears to be focused on addressing that last bit, about making the case for the value of vaccines. One high-profile problem, despite compelling evidence to the contrary, is that people still think vaccines cause autism.

Vaccines aren’t perfect, and can cause harm, but there are no health interventions without risk. Most of the public unease about vaccines is not based on what’s known but on a vague unease — frequently fueled by media.

Measles exploded in Europe this year because many parents didn’t get their kids vaccinated. Washington state, for example, has one of the worst rates of childhood vaccination — with the highly educated folks on Seattle’s Vashon Island holding the dubious distinction of being one of the least vaccinated communities around.

So the problem I have with this media blitz is just that it’s necessary. I read these stories and wonder why we don’t also need big media and advocacy blitzes to make the case for clean water, sanitation or protection from food-borne illnesses. Why do we keep having to make the case for vaccines?

The Lancet tries to answer this question in an editorial The Vaccine Paradox.

Part of the problem, the Lancet’s Richard Horton and Pamela Das write, is the “sensational reporting” in the media about risks — or perceived risks — of vaccination. (You’ve all heard the autism claims. I intend to explore a different, recent episode involving Seattle-based PATH working in India soon).

But part of it is, I think, that vaccines are both so simple and basically boring.

They are easily administered in isolation from the kind of systems changes needed to address most other health problems such as maternal mortality, AIDS or malnutrition. Their impact is essentially invisible, the prevention of disease, so they seldom attract as much enthusiasm or celebrity endorsements as other health concerns.

So, yes, I tend to see this media blitz as more a symptom of public ignorance and indifference than a measure of success. GAVI has already saved more lives, something like 5 million or so, in the past ten years — more than any other single health intervention out there.

It shouldn’t be a hard sell.

SIDE NOTE: It is also potentially problematic for one organization, the Gates Foundation, to be exerting so much singular influence over a fundamental component of public health. It may be well-intentioned, but the Seattle philanthropy is funding so many different aspects of immunization worldwide — GAVI, vaccine research, scholarly analysis (Health Affairs, for example, got a grant from Gates) as well as media — there is the risk of distorting the story line or drowning out alternative views. I, for one, welcome the Gates Foundation’s advocacy of (and amazingly generous funding for) immunization. But there is a risk with influence so profound.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.