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Measles Has Made A Comeback In Australia. What's Next?

Almost a century after Spanish influenza killed more people than World War I, the world is 10 minutes to midnight on the next big pandemic.

28/04/2017 6:52 AM AEST | Updated 28/04/2017 6:56 AM AEST
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There is absolutely no reason why vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles should still be of harm to anyone.

This week is World Immunisation Week, which seeks to highlight the critical importance of immunisation against preventable diseases.

Vaccines have been a prominent subject this year already. Although widely condemned, Pauline Hanson's controversial remarks in early March highlighted the unfounded fears of vaccine use that still prevail in the community. And with vaccination rates on the decline, the Turnbull Government has been forthright in getting state governments to adopt its 'no jab, no play' policy whereby unvaccinated children will be banned from childcare centres.

Such measures are for good reason. In recent years, diseases long forgotten in the affluent developed communities of the West have begun to make a comeback. Look at measles. It took just one unvaccinated Australian to spark the first major measles outbreak in Sydney in five years, after contracting the disease in Bali. More than 20 cases have since been reported in NSW alone.

Given today's modern medicine there is absolutely no reason why vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles should still be of harm to anyone. Yet in many parts of the world, particularly in remote and marginalised parts of developing countries, such diseases continue to wreak havoc. Often this is simply because a child cannot be reached with something as basic as a 13 cent vaccine in the case of polio. Currently, the WHO estimate that 19.4 million infants worldwide are still missing out on basic vaccines and an additional 1.5 million deaths could be avoided if we improved vaccination coverage.

Despite all of our investment and breakthroughs, the world has only ever managed to truly eradicate one human disease: smallpox.

Fortunately we've been making great progress towards bridging this gap in recent years. In 2000, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, was launched. Set up as a public–private global health partnership committed to increasing access to immunisation in poor countries, since its creation (through 2016) Gavi has reached 580 million additional children, preventing more than 7 million deaths in the process. Australia, I'm proud to say, has been a leading contributor to this effort for many years.

But there remains a lot more to do. Despite all of our investment and breakthroughs, the world has only ever managed to truly eradicate one human disease: smallpox. We may be on the verge of another: polio. With just 37 cases of polio reported last year, we stand on the cusp of ridding the world of this disease that once paralysed 40,000 Australians from the 1930s through to the early 1960s.

But we are in a race against time. Thousands of children remain unvaccinated and the World Health Organisation estimates that a resurgence of polio could paralyse more than 200,000 children per year within a decade unless fully eradicated.

Started by an Australian Rotarian, Sir Clem Renouf, in 1979, Australians have long played a leading role in global polio eradication efforts. In 2015, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reaffirmed this support at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta where he committed $36 million to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

But the effort remains constrained by a $1.3 billion funding gap that threatens to derail progress. Australia should announce a new pledge towards the effort for the last time. After all, if we can finish the job on polio, we can apply the lessons, assets and infrastructure from the effort to other public health initiatives.

Continuing to invest in vaccination efforts, even in other countries, is just as important today as ever before. Almost a century after Spanish influenza killed more people than World War I, the world is 10 minutes to midnight on the next big pandemic. And in today's age of cheap and fast international travel, a deadly pathogen can spread from one corner of the globe to another faster than ever before.

Think I'm being overly dramatic? Think again. Earlier this year, Bill Gates warned that we face the "reasonable probability... [of] a fast-moving airborne pathogen [that] could kill more than 30 million people in less than a year." If a pandemic were to occur today on the scale of the 1918 Spanish Influenza, almost 200 million people could lose their lives. Meanwhile the global economy would contract by 5-6 percent.

As it stands, we are woefully unprepared to prevent an outbreak from evolving into a pandemic of this scale. At least one new disease outbreak is investigated on average every day across the world by the WHO. Yet, the WHO's own contingency fund for dealing with such outbreaks manages to raise on average barely a third of its annual response budget.

Few milestones would demonstrate our resolve to make the world safe from infectious diseases than finishing the job on polio eradication once and for all.

The good news is that as citizens there is something we can all do to contain the spread of infectious diseases. Beyond making sure we are up to date with our vaccinations, it's also about recognising that we live in a global village and that so long as diseases like polio exist anywhere, they are a threat everywhere. Accordingly, we should hold our government and local elected officials accountable for ensuring adequate support for the development and distribution of both new and better vaccines, both in Australia and beyond.

This includes committing to eradicating easily preventable diseases such as polio. Thanks to modern vaccines, the virus remains in only a handful of outposts today. Few milestones would demonstrate our resolve to make the world safe from infectious diseases than finishing the job on polio eradication once and for all.

The Turnbull Government, building on its past leadership, has the unique ability to make this dream a reality.


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