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COVID-19 – a powerful reminder of the value of vaccines

26th April 2021

In support of World Immunization Week (24-30 April 2021 – #WorldImmunizationWeek with the theme of #VaccinesWork), a Voices blog by Professor Helen Bedford, Professor of Children’s Health at the Population, Policy and Practice Research and Teaching Department, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.

Professor Helen Bedford, Professor of Children’s Health at the
Population, Policy and Practice Research and Teaching Department,
UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health

This year, World Immunization Week (24-30 April 2021) closely follows the anniversary of the first person to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in one of the COVID-19 vaccine trials (Oxford-AstraZeneca). What a year it has been. I think it’s fair to say, that no one predicted we would have several safe and effective vaccines as soon as the end of 2020, yet alone that over half the UK population would have received at least one dose by early April 2021, just a year after the trials began. This is a testament to the dedicated and sheer hard work of many organisations and individuals. Not least the scientists who developed the vaccines, the public who volunteered to take part in trials and the NHS running the vaccination programme, with the support of many volunteers, once again demonstrating what an incredible institution it is. To top that, news has just emerged of the success of efficacy trials also conducted by the same Oxford vaccine group, of a malaria vaccine. If shown to be safe, this should prevent half a million deaths a year, mainly in children. This truly is turning into a new and exciting phase in vaccine development.

However, even where science has risen to the challenge and developed safe and effective vaccines in record time, this is not enough, as vaccines are only of value if they get into people and there are still many challenges for existing vaccine programmes around the world. Despite huge improvements in vaccine coverage over the past few decades, progress has stalled recently and almost 20 million children under the age of one do not receive the full course of basic vaccines with over 13 million receiving none at all. The Immunization Agenda 2030 (IA2030) launched this week sets out an ambitious vision and strategy for vaccines for the next decade. Developed with the cooperation of countries, more emphasis is placed on tailored approaches for different contexts with integration into primary healthcare services.

But although there are still challenges in improving vaccine coverage globally, we should use this as an opportunity to celebrate the established UK childhood vaccination programme, one of the most successful worldwide. Yes, there is still room for improvement by closing  gaps in under-vaccination in some population groups but overall the programme is highly successful. The COVID-19 pandemic saw much innovative practice by healthcare professionals to ensure that children did not miss their routine vaccines.  Despite occasional media stories, suggesting the vaccination programme is threatened by the anti-vaccine movement and that vaccine hesitancy is increasing, most parents in the UK vaccinate their children and vaccine confidence is high. This does not mean that parents have no questions and concerns about vaccination. They do and rightly so, the offer of any other medical intervention would prompt questions – vaccination should be no exception and parents should be encouraged and supported to ask questions.

It is this vital part of the vaccination programme where health visitors have such a key role. Their early contacts, and the relationships they build with families provide a firm basis for effective conversations about vaccination. Trust is absolutely fundamental to the success of these conversations – making health visitors particularly well-placed to promote vaccination, discuss questions openly and honestly, and dispel any myths or misinformation.

We can learn a great deal about vaccine roll-out from the COVID-19 vaccination programme for future campaigns as well as for provision of routine services such as the need for flexible vaccination services, offering domiciliary vaccines or vaccination in the work-place or temporary vaccination centres.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had many impacts, not least providing a powerful reminder of the value of vaccines.

Professor Helen Bedford, Professor of Children’s Health at the Population, Policy and Practice Research and Teaching Department, UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.