The undeniable power of vaccines
As Ukraine faces one of the world’s worst measles outbreaks, doctors and parents work together to dispel myths about vaccines.
The rash doesn’t usually show up until several days after the other symptoms – a cough, fever, and sore throat – but by this time, the virus has been in the body for nearly two weeks. Within hours, the rash will cover the body, and last another week. There is no cure for measles – it remains one of the most serious illnesses for children under age 5.
Since 2017, more than 100,000 people have contracted measles in Ukraine, with 15 deaths already in 2019 – six of them children. The outbreak has fuelled concerns over low vaccination rates in the country, caused by misinformation and a shortage of vaccines in previous years. Measles is extremely contagious; an estimated 90 per cent of unprotected people who come close to someone with measles will contract it, too.
[ABOVE]: Olena Kudryashova and her daughter, Maya, 17 months, walk outside their home in Kyiv. Both caught measles in 2018. Olena was infected first, before spreading the illness to her daughter. Today, Olena supports vaccination as early as possible. “Vaccination, like politics or religion, leaves no one indifferent,” she says. “But… there is no room for discussion in vaccination. It is absurd to deny its effectiveness.”
“It is easy to be an anti-vaccinator when you have no children,” admits Inna Onyshchenko, a Facebook blogger popular among mothers of young children in Ukraine. Before she was a mother, Inna spoke out against vaccination. When she became pregnant, she reconsidered. Today, her three-year-old daughter Zoryana has all of her vaccinations and Inna shares her experiences on her blog, dispelling common myths about immunization.
Svitlana Ovdiy plays with her son Kyrylo, 3, a tetanus survivor, near their house outside Kyiv. The infection put Kyrylo in a medically-induced coma, and he spent 50 days in the hospital. “When he heard my voice... he started crying, calling for help, but there was nothing more I could do,” Svitlana recalls. “Now vaccination is a top priority issue in our family.”
Hanna Prokopyshyn sits with her grandson Dmytro, 9, in the hospital where he receives treatment for bronchial asthma. Dmytro’s parents initially were afraid to vaccinate their son due to his condition – a concern doctors dispelled, especially amid Ukraine’s measles outbreak. Dmytro has already successfully received the first dose of the MMR vaccine and his parents plan to follow the National Immunization Schedule.
Serhiy Oliynyk, a paediatrician, holds his daughter Katya, age 1, before setting off to work at Kosiv hospital in Western Ukraine. Serhiy promotes vaccines among his patients and recently had Katya inoculated against measles. Children should generally receive their first dose of the MMR vaccine at age 1; babies at high risk of contracting measles, especially during an outbreak, can receive the MMR shot as early as 6 months.
Anna Kravchuk, a university student and one of six children, did not get vaccinated until the measles outbreak in Ukraine reached her school. Many of Anna’s fellow students were infected – one died. After Anna got vaccinated, she convinced her mother to vaccinate her younger sisters. “I am sometimes being asked for medical advice,” she says. “And, of course, in the first year of study I am not a reliable adviser. But for immunization I know for sure – it just must be done. It is obligatory.”
“The problems with vaccination... result from the poor communication between doctors and and patients,” says Maryana Voznytsya, Head Doctor at the Ukrainian Specialized Children’s Hospital in Lviv. She adds that her hospital deals with the consequences of other doctors’ vaccination failures. In recent years, the hospital has received six tetanus cases, with many doctors facing the disease for the first time. “Everyone should know that doctors and patients are on the same side in the fight against diseases.”
Oles Pohranychnyi, a private school director in Lviv, once believed the misconceptions surrounding vaccines – he and his wife decided not to vaccinate their three daughters. Increased risk of measles and other illnesses in Ukraine, such as tetanus and diphtheria, made them change their minds. “The National Education System should... give people confidence in vaccination and health services in general,” Oles says, holding his daughter. He now organizes UNICEF-supported vaccination training for parents and arranges inoculations for staff.
“The more openly we talk about vaccination, the more we'll be trusted by parents, because they realize that there's nothing to be afraid of,” says Ivanna Knysh, pictured after vaccinating three children in Western Ukraine. Until recently, Ivanna, a nurse, worked at a healthcare facility in Novoselytsya, a town in which 100 per cent of children were vaccinated thanks to her efforts. Now a UNICEF-certified vaccination trainer, Ivanna actively encourages doctors to help dispel parents’ fears by better explaining the procedure.
After his middle son contracted chickenpox, Igor Sukhomlyn, a restaurateur and thought leader in Kyiv, was not willing to take any chances. He and his wife immediately vaccinated other members of the family from chickenpox, and no one else got sick. “Vaccination is a valuable scientific achievement,” says Igor, pictured with his wife and children in front of his restaurant.
This World Immunization Week, UNICEF and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are launching a new global campaign to emphasize the power and safety of vaccines. From 24–31 April, the foundation will contribute US$1 to UNICEF for every like or share of a social media post using the hashtag #VaccinesWork, up to US$1 million. In the meantime, UNICEF will continue to assist Ukraine’s Ministry of Health in monitoring the outbreak, helping the Government procure free vaccines and spreading the message that together, communities can protect everyone through vaccines.