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An English Rose in Georgia: The history of vaccination
Lesley Francis new 2019.jpg

As we all look back on an almost unbelievable 2020, I cannot help thinking about how naïve we seemed just 12 months ago when we were making plans for the year ahead and didn’t give COVID-19 much thought. We have all lost out this year – lives, health, income, hugs, company and normalcy. I know many people have been much more affected than my family, and my heart goes out to everyone who has been impacted by this cruel virus.

As my regular readers will no doubt know, I always take comfort in history and science. While I respect the views of individuals regarding their own lives and preventative healthcare, I must disclose that I am a big supporter of vaccination for myself and my loved ones. I always get the flu shot, made sure we had vaccinations against Yellow Fever, Hepatitis A, and other infectious diseases before travelling to South America, and I signed up for the shingles vaccine as soon as I turned 50! I intend to minimize the chances of infection as much as possible while still living my life. So as soon it is “my turn” to be offered a COVID-19 vaccine I will take it – after first responders, the elderly, infirm and others who need it as soon as possible to protect them.

As a history major, I have always marvelled that those in my generation and younger in the developed world had an expectation of living a full, long and healthy life. Long gone were the dark days when measles, polio, smallpox, and the Spanish flu killed and disabled millions. But 2020 gave us a reminder of those bad old days.

Infectious diseases have been impactful over the course of human history, and the numbers are truly staggering. When COVID-19 was just starting to make an impact on our lives earlier this year, the on-line magazine “Live Science” gathered information from a variety of reputable sources from the world of science, history and public health, and they published a sobering article titled “20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history”. Here are just five:

• AD 165-180 – The Antonine Plague (suspected smallpox) killed 5 million in the Roman Empire.

• AD 541-542 – The Plague of Justinian (bubonic plague) wiped out 10% of the world’s population and lead to the end of the Byzantine Empire.

• 1346-1353 – The Black Death (bubonic plague) wiped out half the population of Europe.

• 1545-1548 – The Cocoliztli Epidemic (Enteric Fever, similar to typhoid) killed 15 million in Mexico and Central America.

• 1918-1920 – The Spanish Flu Epidemic, which led to the loss of an unbelievable 100 million lives globally.

Today we have vaccinations. How were they first developed and why do they work so well? Vaccines build immunity to specific diseases by stimulating antibodies in our bodies which weaken or destroy the disease. When someone who has been vaccinated is later exposed to live bacteria or viruses of the same kind that were in the vaccine, the antibodies prevent those organisms from making the person sick.

I am proud to say that it was an 18th century English doctor, Edward Jenner, who invented vaccination against smallpox – a disease which caused severe skin lesions and high temperatures which has killed millions of people over the centuries. As a medical student, Jenner noticed that milkmaids who caught cowpox - a mild disease transmitted by blisters on cow’s udders – did not catch smallpox. In 1796, Dr Jenner took fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of an eight-year-old boy who got cowpox but soon recovered. He repeated this a few weeks later, this time using smallpox matter, and the boy did not develop disease. Doctors all over the world copied Jenner’s innovative technique and the incidence of smallpox soon declined.

Trying to imagine the impact of this invention is impossible. In the 18th century, smallpox alone killed around 10% of the population, and up to 20% in crowded urban areas. These statistics alone prove what a comparatively safe and healthy life we enjoy compared to those generations who have gone before us. Jenner is known as “the father of immunology” and his work is said to have saved more lives than the work of any human in history!

In 1885 Louis Pasteur invented the rabies vaccine and, in the early 20th century as the role of bacteria began to be better understood, immunization developed in leaps and bounds. The 1930s saw vaccines developed against diphtheria, tetanus, anthrax, cholera, plague, typhoid, tuberculosis and more. The middle of the 20th century was an important time for vaccine development as technology to grow viruses in laboratories improved, which in turn lead to breakthroughs in developing vaccines to prevent common childhood diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella. In 1953, American Medical Researcher, Dr Jonas Salk successfully introduced the polio vaccine. This disease attacks the nervous system and causes varying degrees of paralysis – affecting adults as well as children. The polio virus is easily transmitted, and epidemics were very common during the first half of the 20th century. My late father-inlaw, who had family and friends affected by this terrible disease, was absolutely convinced that Dr Salk was the single greatest man that ever lived.

So, why will I take the vaccine when I get the chance? I am no doctor, but I do understand that I will not be injected by the coronavirus itself.

Brilliant minds, combined research and enormous budgets have led to the unprecedented speed of development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Once vaccinated – twice a few weeks apart – I am over 95 percent likely to develop an effective immune response when (not if) I am exposed to COVID-19. I have decided to trust the science and believe in statistics.

From society’s perspective, to be most effective a vaccination program depends on most people being vaccinated leading to ‘herd immunity’.

Frankly, I want the day to day freedoms we all took for granted just 12 months ago – to travel, to hug, to eventually stop wearing a mask, to crowd into a concert hall and church – to return without fear of infection or infecting others.

There is a lot more information available at www.history.com, The World Health Organization (WHO) at www.who.int, and www.livescience. com .

I will leave you with a quote from the WHO which states, “Vaccination has greatly reduced the burden of infectious diseases. Only clean water, also considered to be a basic human right, performs better.”

God Bless America and Happy New Year!

Stay safe, stay well, and stay positive.

Lesley grew up in London, England and made Georgia her home in 2009. She can be contacted at lesley@francis. com or via her PR and marketing agency at www.lesleyfrancispr.com

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