Vaccines are the fundamental reason behind eradicating some of the deadliest diseases in the history: The journey of vaccines and immunizations started in 1796 by Edward Jenner, a country doctor from Berkeley, England who performed the world’s first vaccination by taking pus from a cowpox lesion and inoculating in an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps saving him from the deadliest small-pox. The statistics speak for itself how vaccines have been effective in eradicating some of the deadliest diseases in the past including smallpox which was a major killer in the 20th century with annual morbidity of 29,000. Thanks to vaccines there were no recorded cases of smallpox in 2019 (100% decrease) and there has been a decline in other deadly diseases including whooping cough, rubella, and polio to name a few.
Then came the shoddy and dubious science of all time that led to the mass anti-vaccination movement: It has been almost two decades since the discredited physician-researcher Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues published the most damaging piece of research in medicine suggesting a link between MMR vaccine and autism published in Lancet, an esteemed medical journal which later retracted the paper. Despite clarification from CDC and strong evidence shown repeatedly by autism researchers that vaccines do not contribute to autism, the false data and conclusions by Wakefield had already fueled a treacherous global movement of vaccine cynicism and refusal.
Unfortunately, as the ‘vaccine-autism story’ continued to live on resulting an increase in an anti-vaccination movement whose effect was seen in 2019, where CDC reported 695 cases of measles from 22 states which is the greatest number of cases reported in the United States (U.S.) since measles was eliminated from the U.S. in 2000. Additionally, The World Health Organization (WHO) reported a 300% increase in measles cases worldwide in 2019. The major factor for this increase globally was due to a decline in vaccination rates. Sadly, there has also been a constant rise in reported cases of pertussis (whooping cough) attributed to a lack of vaccination.
Why is this alarming and why should we be more vocal about vaccines? Since most vaccine-preventable diseases are spread from person to person, a non-vaccinated person can spread the infectious disease to non-immunes in the community. But a person immune due to vaccination, can’t get that disease and can’t spread it to others. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities a disease has to spread. All it takes is one or two cases to cause outbreaks in the community where people are not vaccinated.
Unfortunately, when one decides not vaccinating themselves or their children, it doesn’t affect just them. Babies less than 12 months are too young to be vaccinated for measles and if they encounter someone with the disease, measles can be very severe in these babies with a very high rate of mortality. Vaccinations are not just protecting ourselves; they also protect people around us who may be unable to get certain vaccines including babies and immunocompromised patients from deadly diseases.
We have to remember that the diseases haven’t disappeared but are under control because of vaccinations. There are low rates of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States, but this isn’t true globally. Smallpox is the only disease that has been obliterated from this planet. Polio is close to being eliminated but still exists in several countries. In 2011, 90% of measles cases in the U.S. were associated with cases imported from another country. Only the fact that most Americans are vaccinated against measles prevented these clusters of cases from becoming epidemics. Disease rates are low in the United States today. But the continuous refusal to get vaccinated, has led and will continue to lead the re-emergence of many infectious diseases thar were eradicated or nearly gone.
Continuous refusal to get vaccinated could repeat the history: History has taught us that a disease that is under control can suddenly return. When vaccination rates for whooping cough dropped by 70% in Japan in 1974, there was 32 times increase in whooping cough cases that led to increase in 41% mortality. Later, when vaccination routine was resumed, the disease numbers dropped. This example teaches us that vaccinations are not just for today, if they are stopped, we would find ourselves battling epidemics of diseases that we thought we had conquered many decades ago.
Effective communication might be the solution to put an end to vaccination refusal: Some people need to decline vaccinations due to potential allergic reactions or medical condition, many refuse vaccinations for themselves or their children for reasons that are religious and safety concerns? Most of the concerns that create opposition to vaccination are nothing more than misconceptions. As a scientific community, it is important to understand the concerns and hesitancy about vaccinations from parents and educate them about vaccines. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a great initiative by compiling a 21-page list of studies with links to the publications explaining the evidence of vaccine safety. As a science community, we can take the next step of simplifying these science-heavy studies and communicate it better to the non-science audience of our community. By giving the right education about vaccines, parents might be able to make more responsible immunization decisions for their children.
The human body battles thousands of disease-causing pathogens daily and develops tolerance and fighting ability against them through training. Vaccines are the foremost trainers for our bodies, they help our bodies identify and fight disease-causing pathogens. Vaccines have saved almost 2.5 million lives every year and have contributed to a reduction in child mortality by more than half since 1990!
In the current scenario, a single virus, COVID-19 has kept billions of people indoors for months, caused economic damage, infected millions with hundreds of thousands of dead. If there were a vaccine for Covid-19, it would not be able to do so much damage, thus scientists and researchers are trying their best to get a vaccine out quickly, till such time, there is little else we can do. Parks and public places have been emptied for months, all due to one virus. Imagine a world where we have to fight against numerous pathogens like COVID-19 at once, fortunately for which we have vaccines.
If one tries to imagine a world without vaccines, it is a world where our children suffer from polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and meningitis; unborn babies infected with congenital rubella and newborn babies suffocating to death by whooping cough. This world existed a few decades ago before vaccines came to our rescue and it is our responsibility to make sure our children do not have to live in a world of the pre-vaccine era. We might be able to survive as a species without vaccines but not without having millions of cases of diseases and deaths. Let us hope we never have to find out how the world without vaccines be like!
Our battle with germs is endless as these germs are smart and continuously adapt. Vaccines have been our main tool in this fight and every immunization decision we make for ourselves and our children keeps these infectious diseases away from conquering and dictating our human world.
About the Author
Manpreet Semwal is a student in the Molecular Immunology & Microbiology discipline of the Integrated Biomedical Sciences program. Her research focuses on addressing the physiological functions of Reactive oxygen species (ROS) in stromal cells in the young, steady state thymus. She is working in Dr. Ann Griffith’s lab that focuses on identifying the causes and consequences of age-associated thymic stromal dysfunction. Their ultimate goal is to develop novel approaches to extend the health span during aging. Read more about her work in the article, “Manpreet Semwal: Having a Ph.D. Will Help Me Train Future Scientists.”
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