Why science must drive India's health policies

We have every reason to celebrate India's achievements in vaccine research, development and manufacturing.

 |  4-minute read |   06-06-2018
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India’s history of science and technology is rich and remarkable. Research and innovation — from medical breakthroughs to our mission to Mars — have put India on the global map. Today, India is among the top countries in the world in these fields, with a robust technical community that continues to pursue excellence. This is not only a cause for great pride, but also a key driver of our economic growth and development. 

We have every reason to celebrate India’s achievements in vaccine research, development and manufacturing. Each year, vaccines produced by Indian companies save the lives of thousands of children in India and around the world. In fact, India exports more vaccines than any other country: the majority of vaccines administered globally are made in India.

vaccine-body_060618031013.jpgDrop of life: India’s elimination of polio has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements in the history of global health. [Credit: Reuters photo]

Indian vaccines make it possible to eliminate diseases far from our own country. Rubella vaccines, supplied by Indian manufacturers to countries in the Americas, helped eliminate rubella from this entire region. Similarly, an Indian-manufactured vaccine against meningococcal serogroup A meningitis has led to the near elimination of this deadly disease from the “meningitis belt” of Africa.

India’s elimination of polio has been hailed as one of the greatest achievements in the history of global health. Many questioned whether India could ever eliminate polio, given the vast size of the country and complex obstacles facing the elimination programme. But through tireless efforts of the government and a multitude of partners, including media, India was certified polio-free by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2014. Global polio eradication is now viewed as an achievable goal, in large part because India proved that elimination is possible, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Today, India’s Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP) offers protection to our children from 12 diseases. Recently, a vaccine against rotavirus (the most common cause of childhood diarrhoea), developed by a partnership that included the Indian Department of Biotechnology and Bharat Biotech, received recognition by the WHO for its quality, safety and effectiveness and was approved for use globally. India has now introduced the rotavirus vaccine in 10 states to fight the most common cause of diarrhoea in children.

Of course, beyond vaccine development and manufacturing, we must ensure these vaccines reach every child in India. The Centre’s Mission Indradhanush initiative aims to scale up immunisation coverage to 90 per cent nationwide, with special focus on low-resource areas such as remote villages and urban slums. The prime minister himself has put his full support behind this initiative, stating, “Let no child suffer from any vaccine-preventable disease.”

doctor_060618031440.jpgHealthcare revolution: We must do everything in our power to protect and save the lives of children. [Credit: Reuters photo]

Vaccines are safe and effective and save millions of lives around the world each year. In India, we have recently seen the highest ever decadal decline in infant and child deaths. Improved routine immunisation coverage across India, as well as the introduction of several new vaccines, have helped drive this trend. The policy and programmatic decisions that have made this a reality were based on science. The government of India’s National Technical Advisory Group on Immunization (NTAGI), which makes recommendations on vaccine introductions and other policies, is composed of some of the greatest scientific minds in our country. Their expertise and guidance provide the government with the information they need to make decisions based upon scientific evidence.

Those who make unsubstantiated claims about the safety and efficacy of vaccines recommended by NTAGI do not have the communities’ best interests at heart. Vaccines are introduced after a rigorous process of safety and efficacy studies, and the government has robust infrastructure in place to monitor for adverse events or reactions. The government of India is doing commendable work to make sure that these life-saving technologies are available to every child.

As a scientist who has spent decades working on these issues, I appeal to everyone to focus on the evidence and facts. By following the science, we take decisions that benefit not only India, but also its neighbours, as infections have no respect for boundaries. We must do everything in our power to protect and save the lives of India’s children, and where we can, of children around the world. In keeping with our great tradition of scientific achievements, this is something which we can all be proud of.

Also read: Why India's child immunisation programme gives me hope


Dr NK Ganguly Dr NK Ganguly

The author is former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research.

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