Last October an outbreak of measles began in Samoa. Before it was contained 76 people — more than 60 of them children under four — died. That outbreak was made probable when vaccinations rates fell after two infants died in 2018 when the MMR vaccine was incorrectly administered. During the outbreak a state of emergency was declared in the country of 200,000 people and a mass vaccination campaign imposed.
Health workers went door-to-door to deliver immunisations. Before the tragedy was contained the country ran out of child-sized coffins. It was defeated when confidence in proven medicine, and vaccinations in particular, was restored.
The scale and remoteness of that tragedy — from an Irish perspective — may not have had encouraged an ever-more robust culture of vaccination adherence. However, the coronavirus epidemic has ended any remaining ambivalence about the need for absolute discipline on vaccinations. As there is no vaccination to contain it the unfolding crisis shows what a runaway epidemic looks like even in a very tightly controlled society. The World Health Organisation said this week that it may be 18 months before a coronavirus vaccine is publicly available.
Escalating figures suggest that could be a fraught 18 months and not just for China’s besieged millions. On Thursday, China confirmed 1,109 new infections bringing the total in mainland China to 74,685. The death toll has reached 2,236 as of the end of Thursday. It has also emerged that over 500 cases have been confirmed in prisons across China, opening an chilling subplot to the crisis.
It is possible, just, to take a smidgen of comfort in distance between Ireland and the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic but other diseases, all but defeated by science and the civic responsibility expressed through mass vaccinations, are resurgent and demand forceful, unambiguous attention.
The first case of rubella in Ireland in 11 years has just been identified. It is believed the disease was contracted in another country. This, apart at all from the health implications is distressing as the WHO said four years ago that Ireland was considered free of endemic rubella.
Our health services are also coping with an outbreak of mumps and have warned about the threat of measles. That these diseases, each with lethal potential, should be resurgent suggests and indifference to vaccination programmes that is unacceptable.
Could it be that as the understanding of how dangerous these diseases can be fades from living memory, polio too, that a new I-know-best laxity has persuaded some people that vaccinations are unnecessary or even a risk. This is voodoo science encouraged by online quacks and should not, in any circumstances, be indulged.
As anyone who has seen the catastrophic, life-destroying impact rubella can have on an unborn child should its mother contract the disease will attest opposition to vaccinations is as inhuman as it is stupid.
Personal choice is a mantra of our age but more and more countries are limiting this perceived right to prioritise the common good. One of the ways this is done is to make vaccinations mandatory or at least very hard to avoid. It is time we did the same before we face a catastrophe as Samoa did.