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In a couple of months, it will be time for Haj. Whether it's a religious pilgrimage, a trip back home or an escape to an exotic place, it involves interacting with a whole lot more people than usual and getting exposed to new environments, which brings its own set of challenges. One of which is the risk of catching infectious diseases.

Contracting a communicable disease on a holiday or a mass religious gathering like Haj strikes at the core of the purpose of such activities. For the elderly and children, it can take a dangerous turn. That’s why immunisation is so important.

Every year, immunization prevents 3.5 million to 5 million deaths from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza and measles, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). With vaccines available for more than 20 life-threatening diseases, it is not only common sense but also a personal responsibility that people of all ages get vaccinated so that they can protect themselves and their community against communicable diseases. Working with the body's immune system, vaccines offer protection by fighting off infections, thereby playing a critical role in the prevention and control of disease outbreaks.

However, the emergence of Covid-19 has severely hampered global immunisation efforts. Having plateaued for some years before the pandemic due to conflicts and lack of access to immunisation, vaccination rates have been dropping since 2020. Figures from WHO and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention paint a stark picture. In 2021, 25 million children missed at least one routine vaccine — that is 6 million more than in 2019. Eighteen million of those children didn’t receive any vaccines at all. The same year, 128,000 children were estimated to have died of measles while almost 40 million children were left susceptible to the disease. Efforts to eradicate polio have also faced setbacks with outbreaks reported in places with low vaccination rates including paralysis cases in the US and London.

All of these point towards the urgency to catch up with vaccinations to help people live longer and healthier lives. As part of World Immunisation Week, organised in the last week of April every year from April 24-30, WHO is working with global health organisations and countries to step up efforts to protect more people from communicable diseases. WHO has called for collective action, under the banner, The Big Catch-up, to improve access to immunization and bring back essential immunization coverage to 2019 levels.

We can contribute by ensuring we are up to date with our vaccinations. If travel is on the cards, be it within the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe or North, Central or South America, get the necessary vaccinations depending on the season, health, age and planned activities. 

The same applies if you are planning to go on religious pilgrimages such as Haj where there is an increased risk of infection.

As you plan for these important events in life, save a date for vaccinations too so that you can have a healthy and happy experience. For there is no reason for people to lose their lives to vaccine-preventable diseases.