By David Kelly | University Communications
AURORA, Colo. – Public health officials from across the Americas converged on the Anschutz Medical Campus Thursday for the first Pan-American Vaccine Safety Summit, aimed at creating new ways of delivering immunizations safely.
The two-day summit began with representatives from Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Jamaica, Chile, Canada and the U.S. discussing how their nations deliver vaccines and the challenges of confronting rumors that can endanger immunization programs.
They cited misinformation associating certain vaccines with diseases despite a lack of scientific proof. In one instance, cases of polio in Nigeria spiked after leaders there claimed the vaccines were part of a worldwide conspiracy against them. In the West, some have connected autism with flu vaccines and encephalopathy with the pertussis vaccine.
Carlos Castillo Solorzano, regional advisor on vaccines and immunizations for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), said proactive, honest communication was critical in a crisis. If there are unfounded rumors about a vaccine they must be confronted directly, he said.
“Bad communication can make a good immunization strategy a failure," said Solorzano, a physician from Peru.
Safety standards for vaccines must be high because they are given to healthy rather than sick people, said Claudia Vellozi, deputy director of the immunization office at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said the CDC has an extensive vaccine monitoring system where incidents are compiled in vast databases.
The head of the World Health Organization’s vaccine safety program, Patrick Zuber, MD, MPH, delivered the keynote address where he acknowledged that vaccines have caused seizures, shock and other health issues. Yet the numbers of such incidents were small compared to the amount of immunizations given. Still, he said, it’s hard to battle a rumor.
“These types of beliefs, once they start, are hard to erase,” he said.
Zuber showed an illustration from an anti-vaccine group that claimed hydrochloric acid, ammonia and chicken embryos, among other things, were ingredients in an immunization. Health workers, he said, must set the highest standards for vaccine safety in all international programs. They must also be proactive in their communications and know all the risks and benefits of their vaccines.
The summit was organized by Edwin Asturias, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“At the end we expect to have a basic framework to develop a network for vaccine safety throughout the Pan-American region,” said Asturias, who is director for Latin America at the Center for Global Health, part of the Colorado School of Public Health.
The Colorado School of Public Health was chosen as the summit site for a number of reasons. It is a recognized national research leader into the safe delivery of vaccinations, with growing programs in nations like Guatemala.
Last week, the maternal and child health division within the Center for Global Health was designated by the World Health Organization as a WHO Collaborating Center for Promoting Family and Child Health. It is one of only two programs in the Americas to receive this designation in maternal and child health.
And on Wednesday, Asturias won a $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for an innovative project that will send text messages via cell phones to mothers and guardians of children in Guatemala reminding them to get needed immunizations.