Vaccinations: Jewel in the crown of modern medical science

Humanity was vulnerable to a plethora of deadly diseases before jabs arrived

The first case of Covid-19 was described in December 2019 and since then  several very effective vaccines have been developed. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Bloomberg

The first case of Covid-19 was described in December 2019 and since then several very effective vaccines have been developed. Photograph: Roger Kisby/Bloomberg

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Let me give you two sets of names: (A) Tony Holohan, Paul Reid, Sam McConkey, Fergal Bowers; (B) Ugur Sahin, Ozlem Tureci, Katalin Kariko, Hamilton Bennett. You will know each name in list A because they feature constantly in our media talking about Covid-19.

But I’m confident the great majority of you won’t recognise a single name in list B, which names four scientists who developed Covid-19 vaccines.

These vaccines are our only hope of getting past this horrible Covid-19 pandemic in the near-term. Although doing essential work otherwise to battle this pandemic, nobody on list A worked to develop Covid-19 vaccines. My point is that science, surely the big hero of the entire Covid-19 saga, doesn’t get the public recognition it deserves.

The first case of Covid-19 was described in December 2019. Astonishingly, in the 14 months since then science has developed several very effective vaccines against this disease and mass vaccination programmes are now rolling out. Holohan, McConkey, Reid and Bowers in list A are doing essential work advising and implementing measures to prevent us from contracting Covid-19 and generally keeping the public abreast of developments.

But, in the absence of vaccines, they would be restricted to recommending preventive measures such as face masks, social distancing and hand hygiene and scheduling lengthy public lockdowns while waiting for the disease to slowly burn itself out.

Lives saved

Vaccination is probably the brightest jewel in the crown of modern scientific medicine. Vaccines train our immune system to recognise and remember disease-causing pathogens and to destroy these pathogens if they enter the body later.

Prior to the availability of vaccines, humanity was totally vulnerable to a plethora of deadly diseases. For example, in the 17th century 12 per cent of UK children died before their first birthday.

They died of tetanus, whooping cough, diphtheria, tuberculosis, dysentery, typhus, rickets, chickenpox, scarlet fever, measles, smallpox and the plague. The UK infant mortality rate today is 0.36 per cent because babies are now vaccinated against 13 potentially life-threatening diseases. Globally, the WHO estimates that vaccination saved 10 million lives 2010-2015.

In saying science doesn’t get the public recognition it deserves I’m not asking that scientists who make breakthroughs receive public adulation; akin to rock stars

The Spanish Flu, a deadly viral influenza pandemic that lasted from February 1918 to April 1920, is an example of the havoc caused by disease in the absence of scientific medicine. There were no effective vaccines or anti-viral drugs available to deal with this flu that infected 500 million people (one quarter of the world’s population). Estimates of the numbers killed range from 50 million to 100 million. For comparison about 10 million civilians died in the first World War.

The first-ever vaccination (from vacca, Latin for cow) is credited to English physician Edward Jenner in 1796. Noting that milkmaids who had previously been infected with cowpox were subsequently protected from smallpox, Jenner introduced pus from cowpox lesions on a milkmaid’s hands into a cut he made on a boy’s arm. Six weeks later Jenner exposed the boy to smallpox but the boy did not develop the infection, nor after 20 subsequent trials. Research ethics committees were thin on the ground at the time!

In debt

Louis Pasteur improved the technique of vaccination in the 1880s and as science developed in the first half of the 20th century there was a corresponding explosion of vaccines protecting against whooping cough (1914), diphtheria (1926), tetanus (1938), influenza (1945) and mumps (1948). Vaccines against polio (1955), measles (1963), rubella (1969) and other viruses followed. The world was declared smallpox-free in 1980 and vaccines have effectively rid most of the world of polio, diphtheria, mumps, measles and rubella.

If science had contributed nothing else to humanity beyond vaccination, we would still be in its debt. But, in scientific medicine alone science has made innumerable lifesaving advances, not least the development of antibiotics. And, of course, on the broader front our modern world now runs entirely on science-based technology – communications, information technology, transport, agriculture etc.

In saying science doesn’t get the public recognition it deserves I’m not asking that scientists who make breakthroughs receive public adulation; akin to rock stars. That would be a seriously counter-productive development.

I would simply like more public acknowledgement of the importance of science and to have this acknowledgement reflected in structural and financial support for science.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC

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