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There has been a handful of impactful moments in medical history that have helped shape the development of global health. Perhaps second to only the successful distribution of clean water to large populations worldwide, immunisation, in particular, has been a greatly significant intervention that helped to bring up living standards for millions upon millions of people. With the fate of the world hinging upon the new Covid-19 vaccines, it’s time to take a look back and retrace the steps we have collectively taken in the journey of immuno-protection.
Strap yourself in for a trip down the annals of history! To understand how immunisation works, we have to start with the origins of the modern solution to immunisation. This leads us back to the late eighteenth century, an era during which smallpox was rife and took out a large portion of the European population annually—we’re talking an estimated count of 400,000 Europeans each year.
British physician Edward Jenner was lauded for being responsible for the first recorded discovery of a counteractive smallpox vaccine. He discovered that by presenting an altered, weaker form of a disease to one’s immune system, the body could be tricked into fighting off the infected disease itself as a whole and become equipped with antibodies. These very antibodies are also helpful in preventing future contractions of the same infections and diseases from progressing into worsened symptoms.
Depending on your location or demographic, the vaccines customarily taken by most of the general public—usually during childhood—includes doses against measles, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, tuberculosis, as well as whooping cough. It is wise to opt for a yearly flu vaccine, though they are best reserved for groups like the immuno-compromised or older folk, as they are in greater need of basic protection. Depending on the country and climate you are situated in, jabs for hepatitis B or yellow fever may be common additions to your list.
Vaccine immunisation has been credited as a highly effective force preventing over two to three million deaths each year. Several milestones have seen a sweeping reduction in cases of infectious diseases, such as the drop of wild poliovirus in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to the complete extermination of maternal and neonatal tetanus in India, Cambodia, Mauritius, and Madagascar. It may not seem like it on the surface, but these are just a few successful examples that speak to the power of herd immunity.
Setting aside the buzz surrounding this much-raved-about concept, herd immunity necessitates the cooperation and mutual respect of the entire community, requiring as many as possible to get vaccinated in order to reduce the risk of the majority spreading or contracting diseases. By protecting yourself, you are by extension protecting the other individuals you may come in contact with as well, which lowers the risk for the vulnerable like babies and the elderly, regardless of their vaccination status. Just look to the Americas as a success story, whereby rubella has been completely weeded out by the early 2000s thanks to wide public participation in immunisation.
It is assumed that there are currently around 18.7 million babies around the world who have not undergone vaccination, and in many cases, this is due to a lack of adequate healthcare and access. Despite seeming like a fundamental health procedure, there is a growing movement of resistance against immunisation.
Media distortion of scientific evidence can be pointed to as the main culprit, particularly in the case of the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella vaccine). A rhetoric that has been as hotly debated as it is parodied, the roots of the Western anti-vaccination crusade has been tracked down to a 1999 study that drew a line of causation between this particular injection with the development of autism. Although the study was proven as fraudulent, with the responsible researcher being struck from the UK medical register, it was already too late—the damage was done. Pockets of measles outbreaks across North America and the UK can attest to the harmful decline in vaccination.
Further south, the African continent saw a spike in polio, also due to the spread of misinformation about immunisation. During the 2000s, rumours spread that the oral vaccine for polio was being laced with HIV and cancer-inducing agents, as well as it being responsible for stunting fertility, both of which were fraudulent claims. As a result, this nationwide panic branched out from Nigeria, all the way across 20 neighbouring countries that had previously been free from the disease, causing a widespread polio epidemic.
Ever since Jenner’s first jab centuries ago, the standard of healthcare for the masses has improved by leaps and bounds. An assumed 128 vaccines and counting have emerged in 86 low- to middle-income countries since 2010. Quests in immunisation targeting chronic conditions like Alzheimer’s, HIV, and AIDS, in addition to searches for jabs against several forms of cancer have already entered the clinical trial stages.
As the world continues to see a plethora of new vaccines in the research pipeline—from Ebola vaccines tests motivated by the 2014 outbreak and updates of the malaria vaccine in response to drug-resistant parasites to clinical trials to test vaccines for cancer—the great race for protection against Covid-19 offers hope for the future of immunisation.