Vaccines protect millions from disease, suffering, death
By Robert Hopwood
Smallpox is almost always mentioned when people talk about the benefits humanity has achieved from vaccines.
There is a good reason for that.
The smallpox vaccine, developed by Britain’s Dr. Edward Jenner in 1798, was the first one created to inoculate people against an infections disease.
Smallpox was awful. It was a scourge that stalked humanity across the globe for at least 3,000 years, spreading from India or Africa to Europe and then to the Americas.
Up to 30% of those who contracted smallpox died of the disease, according to the World Health Organization. Just like with COVID-19, many of those who survived suffered from lifelong complications. And no cure or treatments existed.
In the 1950s, about 50 million people across the globe contracted smallpox. By 1967, it threatened 60% of the world’s population, killed every fourth victim, scarred or blinded most survivors, and eluded any form of treatment, according to the WHO.
In the 1970s, the WHO redoubled its efforts to eradicate the disease. By the end of the decade, a disease that at one time killed every 10th child in France was wiped out, according to the WHO. Since 1980, no one has contracted smallpox.
“Many people consider smallpox eradication to be the biggest achievement in international public health,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
Successful vaccine strategies have largely eradicated some of Earth’s other deadly infections, including polio and measles, says Dr. Shubha Kerkar, Director of Infectious Diseases at DAP Health.
Today we have vaccines against many diseases, as every school-age child knows. They protect against polio, chickenpox, shingles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, bacterial meningitis, COVID-19, and many more diseases.
Thanks to the incredible advances in health science since Jenner gave “lymph fluid” obtained from a milkmaid who had cowpox to James Phipps, doctors across the planet can protect scores of people against untold suffering and death.
Many vaccines contain small parts of the germ. Those bits of the germ are weakened or killed during the manufacture of the vaccine and don’t make people sick, says Dr. Tulika Singh, Director of Research and Associate-Chief Medical Officer at DAP Health.
When the vaccine is administered, the small bits of germ stimulate our immune system to create antibodies, Singh says.
The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are a little different. They use a novel platform using “messenger” RNA to create vaccines (mRNA), Kerkar says. They do not use the live virus or even any particle of a virus.
They do not affect or interact with our DNA in any way. mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA is kept, Kerkar says. The cell breaks down and gets rid of the mRNA soon after it is finished using the instructions.
COVID-19 mRNA vaccines give our cells instructions to make a harmless piece of “spike protein,” which is found on the surface of the virus that causes COVID-19, she says.
“Vaccination prepares the human immune system to combat specific infections,” Kerkar says.
Once the body has created antibodies to a specific disease, it’s ready to fight a real infection, says Singh.
“Vaccines prevent disease; they don’t treat disease or cure disease,” Singh says. “They prevent your body from experiencing a real infection.”
Contrary to what some people may say on social media or whisper at dinner parties, vaccines are not dangerous, Singh says.
An old myth about vaccines is that they cause autism. That false belief started when people read articles by a bad researcher, says Singh. Multiple studies have been done that clearly show that vaccines do not cause autism.
Sometimes people may develop a reaction shortly after getting a vaccination, Singh says. That happens when their bodies react to the vaccine and begin creating antibodies.
“That is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing,” Singh says.
A myth about the COVID-19 vaccine is that it was rushed and therefore unsafe. That’s not true, Singh says.
It can take nearly a decade for a vaccine to get approved by the FDA, Singh says. But the COVID-19 vaccine took less than a year to develop. Singh says the vaccine was fast-tracked because the planet was in the grip of a pandemic, but it did go through rigorous study.
When a vaccine gets an emergency use authorization, the FDA still requires and studies its safety data, Singh says. Once they realized the COVID-19 vaccines in use today were safe, they OK’d them.
“The only reason many people are alive now is because the FDA approved the vaccine so quickly after looking at safety data,” Singh says.