Vaccination is one of the most important achievements in the history of medicine. Its role in safeguarding public health and eradicating deadly diseases is far reaching because vaccines not only protect individuals but contribute to the well-being of entire communities and global populations. Prior to vaccination, history is replete with examples of large populations decimated by disease. Smallpox killed up to 30 percent of those afflicted and blinded about 10 percent of those who recovered. (bit.ly/smapx) Thanks to global vaccination efforts, the last verified case occurred in Somalia in 1977. It’s remarkable to know that in 1967 smallpox claimed the lives of two million people and a decade later it had been completely eradicated.
Surprisingly, smallpox is the only human disease where global eradication efforts achieved victory, despite near wins. The International Taskforce for Disease Eradication (ITDE) maintains a list of diseases that epidemiologists believe can be stopped. Polio, measles, mumps, and rubella, all on the ITDE’s list, are still with us, although diminished by vaccination efforts. This is because it’s exhaustive to get rid of a disease that’s globally embedded. For a disease to be targeted for elimination it must cause terrible widespread suffering. Also, there must be the means by which to pay for eradication efforts. This often entails governmental support to propel vaccination initiatives and enough political stability to apply consistent eradication measures. Given the flux of global politics, this becomes a difficult task. The Center for Foreign Relations posts an interactive map that displays the twenty-nine countries currently involved in wars or terrorist violence. (cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/). The map makes it clear how inaccessible these regions can be and helps us envision the plight of global health workers who administer vaccines and other forms of relief.
Polio is a disease that was once thought to be gone throughout most of the world. In 1994, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared America polio-free, igniting optimism that the rest of the world would soon follow suit. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, polio’s last bastions, became the focus of targeted interventions. Unfortunately, misinformation that the vaccine would lead to infertility and spread HIV led to community uprisings and resistance to vaccination. Polio cases soared. In 2022 a case emerged in New York state that frayed the nerves of healthcare workers and fomented a realization that vaccination and education need to take a front seat or the health of the population would be at risk. Vaccines were only reaching 79 percent of the area’s people, well below the recommended 95 percent to achieve “herd immunity,” which would prevent the disease’s spread, protecting those not vaccinated. According to the Pan American Health Organization, when vaccination rates are low, those who are unvaccinated are more susceptible to the disease, increasing the odds that the weakened virus will mutate to a strain that is infectious. (bit.ly/polvax) Because of vaccine hesitancy, due in part to dangerous misinformation, preventable and controllable illnesses may continue to threaten our lives.
One of those illnesses is the flu. According to the World Health Organization, each year it causes three to five million people worldwide to become seriously ill and results in 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. The virus invades the cells in our respiratory tract and forces them to replicate, triggering our immune system to send antibodies, white blood cells, and inflammatory molecules to tackle the threat. Our defense mechanisms attack the tissues containing the virus. Over time, we typically recover but occasionally our body’s protective response is too strong, killing so much tissue that the lungs can no longer deliver oxygen throughout our system. The flu can also trigger secondary infections which can be hard to control because our immune system is depleted. Children, older adults, and those with chronic medical conditions are most at risk.
You may be wondering if the flu is on the IDTE’s list of eradicable diseases. The flu is thought to be notoriously hard to eliminate because flu viruses are always evolving. Vaccines provide protection against the three or four strains which scientists project will be the most prevalent that year. It’s why we sometimes hear that flu vaccines are more effective in some seasons than others. (bit.ly/vacfl) Simply controlling a disease, as we do with the flu, can be more expensive than trying to eradicate it because of its burden on our healthcare systems and lost productivity among our population. That’s why the Flu Lab is trying to advance solutions in eliminating it altogether. The Flu Lab, supported by respected global health organizations, is developing a scientific strategy to make a vaccine effective against all flu strains by targeting areas within the virus that cannot mutate. Farm animals will also benefit from vaccination because some species are viral melting pots in which multiple flu strains mix, mutate and are then transmitted to people. The Flu Lab also researches airborne transmission and ways to keep our indoor environments safer, an important consideration as winter approaches. You can learn more about the Flu Lab and all of its good work at flulab.org.
We should all be getting flu shots, but the Mayo Clinic is quick to point out that the flu vaccine doesn’t prevent you from getting COVID-19, which is deadlier than the flu, having claimed seven million lives to date. COVID-19 and the flu are caused by different viruses. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2, while flu is caused by influenza A and B viruses.
If you’re on the fence about getting vaccinated, it’s helpful to remember that vaccination provides a robust defense against viruses and helps prevent their spread. Vaccinated people are less likely to miss school or work and vaccination helps to relieve the burden of our overtaxed health care system. COVID-19 is still with us and vaccines have been shown to significantly reduce your chances of developing a serious form of the illness. The shot itself may cause mild side effects but significant adverse effects are very rare. Ask your doctor if you are up-to-date on all of the recommended vaccines.
CDC Recommended Adult Immunization schedule:
CDC Recommended Child Immunization schedule:
Massachusetts School Vaccination Requirements: