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It Takes the Vaccination of Millions to Hold Them Back

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Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Vaccination is a process in which our immune systems are introduced to a harmless version of an infectious agent, such as a virus or bacterium. This introduction induces the body’s natural immune response and marks any intruders as a threat, ensuring that the wild, dangerous versions of those agents will be recognized and dealt with accordingly. Effective use of vaccination is far and away the most significant weapon against infectious diseases, partly because it cooperates with our natural mechanisms so politely.

Effective use of vaccination is far and away the most significant weapon against infectious diseases

Vaccines can either be prophylactic or therapeutic. Prophylactic vaccines are designed to be administered prior to a given infection, and therapeutic vaccines are administered after infection to work in tandem with the body’s immune system. Vaccines usually do not contain active or healthy samples of an infectious agent, and are composed of dead, inactive, or purified bits of them – enough to show the immune system what to prepare against without actually infecting the body.

Imagine, if you will, that your job is to teach someone that rhinoceroses are dangerous. You could drive to Kenya, find a rhinoceros, let your friend out of the car, and allow nature to take its course, but it’s probably more reasonable to show them a picture or a nature documentary before exposing them to a 2,000 pound horned ungulate.

This is similar to how most vaccines work. Rather than injecting a healthy person with a fully-fledged, wild form of a disease, the infectious agents introduced in a vaccine are usually weakened facsimiles or harmless pieces of the real thing. This allows the immune system to easily countermand the threat, recognize that agent if it shows up again, and provide the tools to deal with it immediately in the form of specialized antibodies generated by our white blood cells.

Vaccines in the past

It’s hard for most of us to imagine the world my grandparents grew up in, when childhood was a biological version of Russian roulette and parents didn’t name their children until they turned 36 for fear of getting too attached. It seems that vaccination is the leading cause of people not understanding the importance of vaccination: the millions of people that haven’t died from infectious disease in the past century have apparently done a terrible job of informing the rest of us how they managed to stay alive.

I’ve gone into more detail previously about the impact vaccination had historically on things like measles, smallpox, and polio. Millions of lives are estimated to be saved every year by the measles vaccine alone, and many life-threatening diseases have been almost entirely wiped out thanks to widespread efforts this past century from the medical community and international health organizations.

Vaccines in the present

Vaccination has become a bit of a controversial issue in some circles, largely due to the omnipresence of human misinformation and ignorance. Many parents have taken issue with the frequency and volume of immunizations often required for young children, and find themselves unwilling or unable to do proper research into the subject. Click-bait news encourages any marketable brand of fear, and the nebulous miasma of social media discourse seems to exalt self-assured overconfidence beyond the generally reasonable and skeptical nature of human beings. Concepts such as herd immunity are even used to advocate against vaccination! While it is well beyond the scope of this article and sanity of this author to cover such manifold hogwash in depth, anyone with concerns is advised to seek answers from a variety of medical professionals and practitioners, and to never take any single source as the gospel truth with regards to you or your child’s safety: not even this one.

Not everyone can be vaccinated. Some of us have compromised immune systems that make vaccination a risky option.

That being said, not everyone can be vaccinated. Some of us have compromised immune systems that make vaccination a risky option. Some of us may have negative physical reactions to the adjuvants (used to boost immune response) or preservatives (used to keep the vaccine stable) which are part of many vaccination processes: all the more reason for those who can be vaccinated to do so. With COVID-19, we’ve learned that lengthy incubation periods can dramatically disguise the spread of a disease. Similar to the masks we’re all wearing these days, vaccines are designed not just to protect us, but to protect others from any disease we might be carrying on the sly.

Vaccines in the future

As of printing time, over 115 vaccine candidates are currently in development against COVID-19. Trials have begun on eleven of these so far, to test for potential safety issues. Estimates for widespread vaccine availability are pointing towards 2021 at the earliest. Distribution alone is expected to cost $25 billion, not including the cost to develop the vaccine initially, but is expected to save trillions of dollars globally.

Despite some indications that individuals could be infected by COVID-19 more than once, South Korean scientists concluded earlier this week that there is no longer reason to believe that vaccination would not be a major step to getting through this pandemic. As vaccines have been produced for many animal forms of coronavirus, there is hope that COVID-19 will be next, given the immense scale of global research. However, there are still no proven vaccines available for SARS and MERS, two of the more recent human forms of coronavirus, which makes it hard to say how viable a COVID-19 vaccine may be in the long term. Given the much greater scale and demand for a COVID-19 vaccine, and remembering how clever humans can be when we actually put our heads together on something, I’d be surprised if we don’t figure something out, but what happens between now and then is, well, everybody’s guess.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.