By Dr. Mathu Santosham
The first baby to be vaccinated today is a young girl named Ardra. Pentavalent vaccine launches were organised in all the 14 districts of Kerala today. About 500 to 600 babies were vaccinated per district. Photo courtesy of Mercy Ahun.
As a pediatrician who has dealt with Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) disease for over 40 years, it is heartening to see that the Hib vaccine will soon be available to the poorest children in at least two states in India.
I have seen the devastating consequences of Hib pneumonia and meningitis - Hib is estimated to cause 20% of all severe pneumonias in children. If untreated or if treatment is delayed, there is considerable risk of the child dying. Hib vaccines have been available in affluent countries for over 20 years. They have also been available for children from affluent families in India for several years, but until recently have not been available to the poorest children. Unfortunately, it is the poorest children who are at highest risk for death from this disease because of poor access to health care. It is wonderful to know that at least some of the poor children in India will soon have access to this vaccine.
In addition to pneumonia, Hib also causes meningitis. As a pediatrician, I have cared for many children with this disease. Prior to the availability of Hib vaccines, meningitis was one of the diseases feared most by pediatricians in the western world. In addition to causing death in up to 50% of infants with the disease, meningitis can cause severe neurological problems such as paralysis, deafness, and blindness in approximately 40% of cases. The consequences of meningitis can take a major toll on the social and financial wellbeing of the child as well as the family.
The Government of India has many competing priorities to consider in allocating money for health care of the over 26 million children who are born each year. It is commendable that the Indian Government has made the prevention of this dreadful disease a major priority through the use of the Hib vaccine. It is my sincere hope that this vaccine will soon be available to all children in India.
Dr. Mathu Santosham is the Director of the Center for American Indian Health