The Critical Ingredient to the Success of Vaccination Programs
Only a few weeks into a new administration and with it comes unwelcome medical news. The age-old debate about the safety and appropriateness of vaccination has been renewed and a vocal stage has been delivered to a small group of anti-vaccination zealots. Reports have circulated that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr, a highly visible critic of vaccination, has been invited to chair a commission on vaccination safety by the new administration. If it comes to pass, one result can be accurately predicted: This panel will become a confused platform of ideological rhetoric which diminishes trust in those scientific bodies charged with making sound judgments for the public welfare. This inevitable outcome is particularly unfortunate since there has never been any advance in medical history that has had a more positive impact on our lives than vaccination.
Humanity has been in eternal conflict with infectious diseases throughout history. Perhaps no disease better illustrates the vast range of impacts of epidemic disease than smallpox. In 18th Century Europe, at least 400,000 people died annually from smallpox and one-third of the survivors went blind.
The ultimate success of smallpox vaccination is credited to Sir Edward Jenner in England. Today, due to the effectiveness of worldwide smallpox vaccination programs, that disease has been effectively eradicated from the planet.
However, this is not the case for other consequential infectious diseases. Two years ago, a whooping cough epidemic swept through California where vaccination rates are steadily lagging. It is most often affluent parents who are shunning immunization. Some of these anti-vaccine proponents are highly educated people being misled by social media. The trend appears to have originated with a fraudulent and discredited report in a British medical journal linking vaccination with autism. Similar rumors that vaccine stabilizers, such as thimerosal, contribute to autism have also been refuted. Nonetheless, the damage has been done by ill-informed repetition.
There is no doubt that parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are well meaning. However, their actions are ill-advised on two levels. The first relates to individuals. By refusing to appropriately vaccinate themselves or their child, a parent exposes them both to the risks of deadly infections that can be entirely avoided. The second relates the limits of any vaccination program conducted in any community. No vaccination ever devised provides complete protection and some individuals in any population cannot be vaccinated. This includes very young infants whose immune systems are not yet mature enough for vaccination and members of our community that are immunosuppressed due to diseases that weaken their immune system from a variety of illnesses including cancer. Their protection is through our actions. When there are high levels of vaccination within any community, the infectious agent is unable to find enough hosts to reproduce and sustain itself within that population. This level of community-wide protection is termed herd immunity and it is our joint responsibility for the protection of the other members of our community.
The next outbreak of a preventable infectious disease with its incumbent tragedies is always lurking. A political committee to examine the evidence based on ideological biases is not needed. Instead, our policies should rely on the expertise of already existing scientific organizations such as the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS), an independent expert clinical and scientific advisory body, as well as our own Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health.
The critical ingredient to the success of vaccination programs is education. Therefore, there needs to be a concerted program to recover our eroded memories of the consequences of now distant epidemic diseases that have been conquered or reduced through vaccination. The success of vaccination programs depends on being familiar with the bitter lessons of our continuous struggle with epidemic diseases. Such an educational process must be ever ongoing.
Dr. Bill Miller has been a physician in academic and private practice for over 30 years. He is the author of The Microcosm Within: Evolution and Extinction in the Hologenome. He currently serves as a scientific advisor to OmniBiome Therapeutics, a pioneering company in discovering and developing solutions to problems in human fertility and health through management of the human microbiome. For more information, www.themicrocosmwithin.com.