Immunization Awareness Month: Vaccines are essential for life
August 27, 2021
By Samantha McPharlin, M.D., Wayne Health Department of Family Medicine
August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and this year that recognition is additionally poignant in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing national conversation around COVID vaccines. With a growing number of people getting vaccinated, and a growing body of research supporting COVID vaccine efficacy, I as a physician can’t help but be moved beyond awareness for vaccines to a place of awe. As it was for the world watching the Apollo 11 mission, we are witnessing in real time the achievement of a superbly honed and labor-intensive endeavor. And it bears reflecting on the long road humanity has tread to bring vaccines to the place they are today.
The word vaccine was actually derived from the name of a virus: the cowpox virus “vaccinia”. An English general practitioner, Dr. Edward Jenner, made history in 1796 when he inoculated an eight-year-old boy with fluid from a pustule of a patient with cowpox (a mild disease) which allowed the boy to develop immunity to smallpox, a much more dangerous and disfiguring disease. While these first “vaccines” involved exposing patients to active viruses, Louis Pasteur’s experiments in the late 1800’s led to vaccines for cholera protection made from attenuated viruses, and for anthrax vaccines made from inactivated viruses. From there, the work of hundreds of labs and thousands of scientists has produced vaccinations for many diseases that used to plague humanity but now sound comfortably foreign: diphtheria, mumps, tetanus, rubella, and famously polio – which was eradicated from the U.S in 1979. Coming full circle, this achievement was followed in 1980 by the eradication of smallpox from the entire world, predominantly due to a global vaccination campaign.
It is estimated by the WHO that routine vaccination prevents between 4 and 5 million deaths per year worldwide, and vaccines are often dubbed the most significant impact on human health after improved sanitation. Despite these successes, vaccines have also faced skepticism and public rejection, echoed currently by the hesitation of many Americans to receive the COVID vaccine. Many of my patients bring up their fears about the vaccine to me in the office; they feel as if the margin of benefit does not outweigh the risk of side effects (a stance not born out by current evidence), or else they mistrust the vaccine entirely. These fears are unfortunately stoked by biased media and the insidious claims of the Anti-Vaxx movement, most of which were loudly proclaimed yet quietly debunked years ago. While vaccine safety is certainly important, and patient autonomy even more crucial, my hope is that time and objective data will give credit where credit is due, because the COVID vaccines, particularly the MRNA vaccines, are producing incredible results. They are at least 90% effective at reducing COVID infection, and reduce your risk of dying from COVID by around 97% (as of data completed by April 2021).
Perhaps it is appropriate that the Pfizer vaccine recently received full FDA approval in vaccine awareness month, and judging by the uptick in rate of first-time vaccination rates, more Americans are making the choice to get vaccinated. At Wayne Health, we are dedicated to offering our patients the best of preventative health care, and vaccines remain a vital tool to keep our patients safe and healthy. As vaccine technology continues to develop, I look forward to seeing what other diseases will be eradicated by what seems like one small poke in the arm, but is actually one giant leap for mankind.
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