Reflecting on Vaccines After World Immunization Week

Vaccines, heralded as one of the greatest medical breakthrough of the modern era save millions of lives each year. Despite the magnificent success of vaccinations against formerly fearsome diseases, fraudulent anti-vaccine claims thrive today. In the spirit of World Immunization Week 2018, I decided to dive into the scientific data that unambiguously demonstrates how effective vaccines are at preventing the most devastating diseases.

Vaccines work on the simple principle of preventing the disease, they help our body’s defense system (immune system) to fight infections effectively and at a much faster rate. When we get a vaccine, we are exposed to small amounts of weakened or dead pathogens, which doesn’t make us sick but all it does is spark our immune system. Once the immune system is sparked it remembers the pathogen, and on our next exposure to the pathogen, our body is ready to fight off the pathogen. This protection that we develop against a disease is defined as immunity, which in many cases lasts for a lifetime.

The story of vaccines begins with smallpox. In the 20th century, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, making it one of the deadliest diseases known to humankind. Before doctors knew how to prevent this highly infectious disease from spreading, Dr. Edward Jenner carried out one of the most pivotal experiments in the history of medicine that led to the discovery of the smallpox vaccine. In 1798, he finally published his results and coined the term “vaccine” from “vacca,” the Latin word for cow. The widespread embrace of smallpox vaccine in the 19th century led to the worldwide eradication of the deadly disease by the late 1970s.

The smallpox vaccination propagated the concept of vaccination, indeed, it is easier to prevent a disease than to cure it. The 19th and the 20th century saw a significant advancement in the development of vaccines against fatal diseases like anthrax rabies, and polio. By the early 2000s, the World Health Organization declared the complete eradication of polio in the Americas, Europe, and Western Pacific. The first 20 years of licensed measles vaccination in the U.S. prevented an estimated 52 million cases of the disease, 17,400 cases of intellectual disability, and 5,200 deaths.

Time and again, vaccines have immensely benefited humankind by providing a multitude of short- term and long-term benefits. WHO reports that vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequality worldwide. Vaccines not only provide protection against the targeted diseases, but also against related diseases. For instance, vaccination against human Papilloma Virus (HPV) has been associated with the drastic reduction in cervical cancer.

The pro-vaccine argument stands on firm ground today with strong scientific evidence demonstrating the undeniable success of vaccines. However, the anti-vaccine adversary has been a persistent problem and follows neither logic nor evidence. Since the advent of vaccination, the British clergy widely ridiculed Jenner’s idea, claiming that it was ungodly to inoculate someone with material from a diseased animal. For the most part, the anti-vaccine movement persisted more on a religious ground than on any firm scientific basis.

The anti-vaccine saga was unleashed again in 1998 with an article published in The Lancet, a prestigious U.K. medical journal, by British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who claimed that vaccines cause autism. But an inquiry by the British General Medical Council found the research to be fraudulent, and the journal retracted the paper, later stating that that the article never should have been published.

Unfortunately, the media seized on the discredited anti-vaccine claims, igniting public fear over the safety of vaccines. And even after two centuries, several groups, widely known as “anti-vaxxers” have risen as skeptics of efficacy and safety of vaccination.

Consequently, several diseases have been making comebacks in recent years, as increasing numbers of parents decide that vaccination is dangerous. In 2015, a large multistate measles outbreak started at a California amusement park. The outbreak is thought to have started from an unvaccinated traveler who was infected with measles overseas and then visited the amusement park while infectious. In 2017, a measles outbreak surfaced from Minnesota particularly in a Somali-American community where concerns about autism led parents to refuse the MMR vaccination. Diseases like the whopping cough, measles and mumps were thought to be diseases of the past, however, they are resurfacing and these troubling events show how failure to vaccinate endangers the whole community.

Now you might be wondering how the failure of vaccination on part of a single person endangers the whole community? Let me describe to you the phenomenon called “herd immunity” or “community immunity.” If you live in a neighborhood where every child except yours is vaccinated, there is hardly any risk of your child contracting the disease. You are relying on everyone else’s child being immune and incapable of spreading infection. But in the event that your child does become infected, many others are put at risk, including those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons or those who are not old enough to be vaccinated. Classic example being the polio vaccine where polio was virtually eliminated in the U.S. after about 70% of the population got the polio vaccine.

Vaccines have consistently maintained an excellent safety record and I reiterate what should be common knowledge that “There is no scientific evidence of them causing autism or other long-term side-effects”. Arm yourself with the facts and vaccinate without doubt.



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Mitali Adlakha

Is a contributor to The Almost Doctor’s Channel.

1 Comment

  1. Vijay Adlakha

    Very good informative